MLA students partner with City of Ann Arbor to design geothermal energy system model
Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) students at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) have access to a wide range of resources, skilled faculty and experience-building opportunities. One example of these opportunities stands out in particular not only as real-world work experience, but also as collaborative practice that showcases SEAS’ emphasis on multidisciplinary work.
The City of Ann Arbor recently reached out to the Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS) to design a model of a geothermal energy system. The model will be used for public education and community outreach in Ann Arbor.
While CSS has expertise in renewable energy and computational modeling, noted Associate Director Shoshannah Lenski (MS ’11), it doesn't have the expertise to build the 3D visual model the city was looking for, so Lenski reached out to SEAS Assistant Professor of Practice Lisa DuRussel (BS ’02, MLA ’06) for support with the project. DuRussel teaches a visualization course to MLA students.
DuRussel was excited about the opportunity to collaborate with CSS and thought it would provide unique work experience to some of her students. “We have not had a collaboration with CSS in this kind of realm before, but as landscape architects we practice community engagement in almost all of our work,” she said.
DuRussel reached out to three MLA students who had excelled in her visualization class the previous year. The students, Kaia McKenney, Kammer Offenhauser and Teresa Zbiciak, all enthusiastically agreed to be part of the project.
“It was exciting not to have something attached to the classroom and to experiment with a different approach to visualization since I didn’t have a background in geothermal energy,” said McKenney.
The City of Ann Arbor provided a precedent study for the students to use as research for their model.
“They went to town on the project,” said DuRussel. “They fabricated the concepts for the model, met with the city to determine what it could look like and how it could function, and used the facilities at U-M’s Center for Socially Engaged Design and the Duderstadt Center’s Fabrication Underground to develop the model. I just served as a touch point for them; they put in all of the work. I was very impressed with all of them.”
The model includes a clear, acrylic base beneath the landscape, providing the user with a visual representation of how geothermal energy functions. The effectiveness of the visualization of this system is key to the success of this model. “It's one thing to show somebody a diagram on a piece of paper,” noted DuRussel, “but it's another thing to actually make something visual that people can look at and lift up and think about.”
The students took the challenge in stride, she said, and developed a model that applies many of the skills they’ve learned regarding visualization, community engagement, education and now geothermal energy systems.
The model has been moved to the city of Ann Arbor, where it will be used to educate and engage residents on a new initiative for geothermal energy systems. While the students involved in the project were commissioned by the city to develop this model, “they seem very interested in geothermal energy after doing this, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the students attended some of the engagement events,” said DuRussel.
The project team noted how the challenges and obstacles throughout the project taught them a lot about design and research processes. Each of them hopes to participate in collaborative projects like this in the future.
“Now that we've built one, I think I know exactly how I'd go about building future ones—it would be faster and better, but on the other hand, I've learned not to overestimate how long research and development can take,” said Zbiciak.
McKenney agreed, noting that throughout the project she learned about new resources available to visualization and design students that she hopes to use in future projects.
“The project has been a fun challenge the whole time,” added Offenhauser. “Having a modeling project that was more illustrative in nature made our work fun and we were able to get creative (on a budget) to make something recognizable but also cute and fun.”
Not only has the project provided professional experience and real-life application for each of the students involved, but it has sparked interest in some of them to continue doing research and visualization work in subjects they have a newfound interest in.