It's Raining Innovation

May 01 2013 | By Melanie A. Farmer

Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Professor Patricia J. Culligan and her doctoral student, Robert Elliott, were part of an interdisciplinary team that included members of the Aquanauts student group at Columbia University whose design proposal was recognized for innovative technology in a green roof competition sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Their team received honorable mention in EPA’s first-ever Campus RainWorks Challenge, where a total of 218 student teams from 42 states competed for a chance to win cash prizes and research funds for advancing green infrastructure research.

Columbia designed an innovative green infrastructure system for an underutilized terrace to help reduce pollution from New York City’s combined sewer system while creating a living classroom.

The challenge? To create an innovative green infrastructure design for a site on their campus showing how managing stormwater at its source can benefit the campus community and the environment. Columbia was singled out from a pool of more than 100 entries in the same category.

Elliott and his teammates focused on an underutilized terrace located behind the Mudd Engineering Building on campus. They proposed a system design that links together a rainwater harvesting system, a vine and trellis system, and a smart control system to store rainwater that would otherwise enter the combined sewer system, and release as much of the stored water as possible into the atmosphere. The interactions between all of these components in this process are controlled by a regulatory system, which makes decisions based on real-time data. (Watch the video to see how this works.)

Columbia Team's Proposal
The Columbia Team's Design (click image to enlarge).

“The world of storm management seems to have a relatively established tool kit, so to speak,” said Elliott. “So it was encouraging to see the EPA support a new way of manipulating natural processes to impact the water cycle.”

And while there are no immediate plans to build and implement this system on campus, Elliott said they will be testing variations of the system for maximum performance over the next couple of years.

Culligan, who serves as the faculty advisor to the Columbia team, commended the students for devising a unique urban design.

“One feature that sets the Columbia team apart is the modular nature of their innovative design,” she said. “The design can fit into the smallest corner of a campus or expand to take up entire courtyards. This makes complete sense for an urban campus like Columbia's, where green infrastructure needs to be flexible and adapt to our own unique space constraints."

EPA judges were impressed with the concept behind Columbia’s design and applauded their “robust technical analysis” as well as their “creativity.”

Elliott’s teammates included members of the student group, the Columbia Aquanauts, who represent a wide range of backgrounds: Nelson Dove (Earth Resources Engineering); Melissa von Mayrhauser (French/Sustainable Development); Steven Lau (Economics); Yuma Shinohara (Comparative Literature); Savannah Kuper (English); Kevin Chen (Biological Sciences); Colin Block, Sammy Roth and Yoko Takemura (Sustainability Management); and Abe Bendheim and John Barnes (Architecture, Planning and Preservation).

The team’s design also incorporated a social aspect; they envisioned that the finished terrace would have an aesthetically pleasing glass structure in the middle alongside a decorative fountain bordered by ample seating areas. The revamped terrace would not only serve as a natural rainwater management system but an outdoor space for students and faculty to enjoy.

“Our system is fundamentally different than most green infrastructure because it combines environmental functionality with a pleasurable space,” adds Elliott. “Access to vegetation in urban environments has been shown to improve quality of life—from reducing hospital recovery times to alleviating ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) in children.”

First place in the RainWorks Challenge went to Illinois Institute of Technology in the small institution category and the University of Florida in the large institution category. The other three honorable mentions went to California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, Kansas State University, and University of Texas at Arlington. EPA intends to offer the RainWorks competition again in the fall of 2013.