Gina Neff’s research group awarded $430,000 grant from NSF

Gina Neff (back row, third from right) with Carrie Sturts Dossick (to Neff's right), Heather Burpee (front row, furthest right), and the graduate students involved with the project. Photo by Erica Thompson

Gina Neff (back row, third from right) with Carrie Sturts Dossick (to Neff’s right), Heather Burpee (front row, furthest right), and the graduate students involved with the project. Photo by Erica Thompson

Associate Professor Gina Neff is a co-Principal Investigator for the Project on Communication Technology and Organizational Practices, a research group studying the roles of communication technology in the innovation of complex building design and construction. The group, also led by two colleagues from the College of Built Environments, was awarded a $430,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study how teams talk about data and analytics in decision-making and collaboration.

“My role on the grant is to lead the social science while my collaborators are the domain experts in engineering and energy analysis,” Neff said. “We’re thrilled because this work was funded through Engineering Design and Innovation in the Civil Engineering Division where there are usually 3,500 proposals a year with an acceptance rate of less than 15 percent. The review panel was very complimentary of our plan to bring communication and social science expertise to one of the core problems of their field and said that they think our project has the potential to fundamentally change how the industry does its work.”

Associate Professor and co-founder of this project Carrie Sturts Dossick joined the UW at the same time as Neff. They have continued a relationship since their initial training sessions, which is how the project came about.

“On a walk one day to Gas Works Park I was saying how I had questions around how technology is used in design and construction, and Gina was talking about her work, and I looked at her and said, ‘You can help me do what I’m trying to figure out,’” Dossick said. “You study people, I study technology – let’s join forces to understand these phenomena.”

Coincidentally also on a walk to Gas Works Park, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture Heather Burpee was brought on to integrate her knowledge and research about how to make buildings more efficient with a focus on energy and health care.

“Through my previous work with the Department of Energy grant, we realized that we have the tools that we need to get analytical data, but the communication between the tool and the team who make decisions is not always there,” Burpee said. “For me, my inspiration is to try to drive change in the market. It’s one thing to talk about energy efficiency and high performance in buildings, it’s another thing to implement it and have buildings operating that way. I see this research as a conduit to get there to help practitioners understand how they can work better together.”

A handful of graduate students are working with the project in different capacities. First-year Ph.D. student and architect Chris Monson came back to school specifically to study this type of integrated practice.

“The phenomena aren’t completely new, but the problems that we are facing now are just starting to formulate,” Monson said. “The lab and all the folks that are connected to this is one of the few places in the world who are looking at this in a truly integrated way that I personally think is going to be a place that generates a lot of solutions.”

Doctoral student Aran Osborne has been engaging in literature review work, which focuses on the use of energy modeling and building performance software in the conceptual or early phases of building design.

“Although there is much discussion around using energy models in building design, I would be interested to know how frequently the actual performance of the building is compared to that predicted by the model,” Osborne said. “A few of the articles I have found touch on this issue of discrepancy between the model and post-occupancy performance, and so it would be interesting to ask design firms how, or if, they verify their designs.”

Each person has a unique connection to the project and their teammates through their scholarship and interests. Beyond that, Burpee and Neff discovered a special tie that formed in the early 1900’s.

“My mom’s grandmother Georgina MacDougall Davis was a UW grad in about 1912, and founded the Women in Communications organization while she was there,” Burpee said. “Her sons and their wives all went to the UW too and one of them studied as an architect. Now, as a UW grad and architect myself, I am so happy to bring my family’s academic history full-circle through my work with Gina.”

While Burpee describes the goals of the project as lofty, she said that is what they need to aspire to.

“Even if we go into one firm and say this research shows that this is a better way to work and shift the culture in one firm, that is a start to a change and it will evolve over time,” she said.

While shifting a culture to build better buildings and better places to be, Dossick pointed out that they are also contributing to the growing trend of engineering’s acknowledgment of human systems and the connection with social science.

“We’re teaching architects and engineers how to communicate,” Neff said. “We’re teaching communication students how to study problems of analytics and information. We’re teaching engineering and construction management Ph.D. students, and built environment Ph.D. students, the core fundamentals of social science research. I think we’re changing disciplines and changing research agendas.”