Students bring mobile laboratory
from idea stage to reality © Oct. 8, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Prof. Matt Lutz, wearing black, jacks up EMBARC with help from students Erik Schutter [foreground] and Brendan Flood.

photo by Jay EricsonProf. Matt Lutz, wearing black, jacks up EMBARC with help from students Erik Schutter [foreground] and Brendan Flood. It will be loaded to a truck bed for transport.

As hot, July sunshine beat down on a grassy field at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., eight students sweated on a construction site. Sawdust flew from a buzzing power saw. Tool belts clinked, hammers pounded and white hard hats gleamed against the brilliant blue sky.

Guided by architecture Prof. Matt Lutz, the students had a straightforward mission; to build a 400-cubic- foot, self-contained, solar-powered mobile lab from a shipping container.

Called the Energy Mobile Building Arts Research Center [EMBARC], the container was conceived, designed and built with the intention that it be dropped on a trailer and trucked to various places for on-the-spot use as a laboratory.

It was a full immersion into the building arts. We were all completely involved in the concept, design and construction.

~ Peter Abiles,
architecture graduate student

Students faced a number of challenges, including a goal of maximum efficiency in material and cost and a tight timeline. The team possessed multiple talents and essential skills with four construction management students, three budding architects and one civil engineering major. The project started with a drawing created by the group. As it morphed over the weeks of June and July 2010, design ideas improved and became more innovative.

“They came up with a quality design, then had the ability to look at a problem and adjust where necessary,” said Lutz, who was impressed by the group’s adaptability.

Amber Heckmann, a senior member of the Corps of Cadets from San Antonio, Texas, and a civil engineer major, admitted she felt some pressure as the sole engineer. “Even Professor Lutz would come to ask me if an idea would work,” she said.

Heckmann worked closely with Jon Quell, a 2010 architecture graduate studying for his master’s degree, on a crucial piece of the structure; the solar panels.

After calculating the possible wind and snow load, attaching the panels to the roof proved unrealistic. “It would have been the worst place to put them,” said Heckmann.

Quell and Heckmann spent two intense weeks designing a pulley system to safely secure the panels to the structure. The system is easy to manipulate when the building needs to be moved. The two researched and considered multiple options for materials.

“The system added character to the container because of the special custom pieces designed by students,” said Quell. “The entire project is unique.”

Lutz said one of his initial goals was to make the project as “real world” as possible. During a tour of the work-in-progress, he pointed out elements of a safe construction site and work zone, an experience new to the students. “They have to come in at 7 a.m. each morning with their head plugged in and [be] ready to work hard,” he said.

In September, removed from the day-to-day intensity of construction, Lutz was still enthusiastic about the project and the experience for the group. “The multidisciplinary nature of it made it a success for the students. It enhanced their problem-solving skills and was a huge confidence builder,” he said.

Peter Abiles spent a week of his summer on the roof of the building in brutal heat. Abiles, a 2010 architecture graduate and current master’s-degree student, attached the rafters, plywood and rubber membrane to the roof.

“We used a thermal reader at one point to see how the insulation was doing,” he said. “It was 147 degrees on the roof and 86 degrees inside the building. It worked.”

Abiles said the experience was invaluable. “It was a full immersion into the building arts. We were all completely involved in the concept, design and construction.”

Quell, Abiles and Heckmann all described the combination of working with students from other disciplines and practical experience as enlightening. “It was a great experience working in the group,” said Quell. “Time management was also an important lesson for us all.”

Heckmann now enjoys being asked about what she did during the summer because she can point to the field where EMBARC is on display.

“See that building with the solar panels?” she said. “That’s what I did. I helped build that.”

EMBARC is part of a larger effort underway at Norwich through the newly established Center for Integrated Study of the Built Environment [CISBE] led by management Prof. Michael Puddicombe. He said EMBARC pulled together four key factors essential to the success of CISBE: sustainability, interdisciplinary collaboration, development of energy-efficient independent structures and education.

“Students working on the EMBARC had hands-on learning in the disciplines in the built environment,” said Puddicombe. “They also had hands-on learning in the actual construction of a cutting-edge structure. Ideas that were theories became reality.”