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Building a more just and beautiful future: CBE’s new faculty cohort makes strides on campus

The College of Built Environments at the University of Washington has big dreams. Faculty, staff, and students are tackling issues of social and environmental justice and climate change. They’re seeking out innovations in sustainability, breaking out of disciplinary silos, and forging new collaborations. Bright minds from diverse backgrounds are contributing their expertise and cultural knowledge. In short, CBE is constructing educational experiences for the future of built environments.

These worthy tasks require not only the wisdom of well-established staff and faculty, but also insights from up-and-coming scholars. In fall 2022, CBE invited a cohort of five emerging scholars to join as new tenure-track faculty, with a sixth cohort member hired in May 2023.

Though they’ve been on campus only a short while, they’re already making an impact, with scholarship that reflects a strong commitment to solving some of the thornier problems that plague built environments.

Here are the professors who comprise this stellar new cohort:

Dr. Narjes Abbasabadi, an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture and affiliate data science faculty UW eScience Institute, studies computation and decarbonization of the built environment.

Dr. Amos Darko, an assistant professor in Construction Management, studies how digital technologies can help people better monitor, assess, understand, and improve the sustainability performance of the built environment, and will join the cohort in fall 2023.

Dr. Celina Balderas Guzmán, an assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, explores the ways that humans and coastal ecosystems adapt to sea level rise.

Dr. Dylan Stevenson, an acting assistant professor in Urban Design and Planning, researches planning approaches that can facilitate the reclaiming and revitalization of indigenous cultures.

Dr. Lingzi Wu, an assistant professor in the Department of Construction Management, advances data-driven decision support systems and applications in construction.

Dr. Vince Wang, an assistant professor in the Runstad Department of Real Estate, researches how local affordable housing policies inform performance on a national level.

The cohort’s climate and energy impacts

“The overall driver of building this cohort was to enhance CBE’s contributions to understanding how built environments can adapt to climate change,” says Ken Yocom, chair of the Landscape Architecture Department and head of the committee that conducted the hiring search. Each of these scholars takes a unique approach to climate issues.

Take the work of Celina Balderas Guzmán. She’s studying the interdependency between people and coastal wetlands under climate change, and the benefits and conflicts that occur in that place of interaction. Another research interest is urban stormwater pollution’s effects on aquatic ecosystems. Both of these topics impact how humans build, live in, and manage cities.

“I’m interested in having my research inform climate adaptation policy and the protection and restoration of coastal wetlands,” explains Balderas Guzmán, who prioritizes action-oriented research applied to real-life issues.

Narjes Abbasabadi’s research explores urban building energy flows using physics-based and data-driven methods. Right now, she’s leading a research project funded by the UW Population Health Initiative, which seeks to facilitate equitable decarbonization of the built environment in collaboration with the City of Seattle and faculty members from multiple departments. The digital models she uses can help scientists understand the trade-offs that coexist alongside decarbonization schemes, such as health burdens.

Darko, whose approach also uses digital models, works to find ways to retrofit existing buildings in Hong Kong (where he currently resides) to help bring them towards a state of ‘green’ and net-zero carbon. “We’re also looking at the health and wellbeing of the occupants,” he says. “We try to achieve both occupant comfort and reduce energy use and carbon emissions at the same time.”

“I value approaches that look at societal changes, such as how do different communities think about the way they’re relating to the earth as we collectively face climate change,” explains Dylan Stevenson. He and fellow cohort member Vince Wang are collaborating to learn how community land trusts can promote climate change initiatives. They recently received a climate change planning grant from UW’s Population Health Initiative for the project. “It gets at the issue of how providing programs for affordable housing can help people live more sustainably through collective land ownership,” says Stevenson.

While the cohort’s climate change and energy efficiency solutions have potential for worldwide impacts, their efforts will also benefit a smaller population: the University of Washington student body.

Mentorship and engagement with UW students

Lingzi Wu is looking for independent and critical thinkers: students who get curious and continue to pursue understanding in the face of adversity or failure. And she hopes to mentor them through the problem-solving process as a new CBE faculty member in a field that hasn’t traditionally embraced people who look like her.

“I bring a unique perspective to UW as a female person of color in the construction field, which has traditionally been dominated by white males,” says Wu. “It is my hope that my presence sends a powerful message, one that emphasizes the importance of inclusivity and diversity. Moreover, I am dedicated to empowering my students, encouraging their voices, and fostering their growth as independent thinkers equipped with valuable transferable skills upon graduation.”

The new cohort is deeply invested in student success and passing down practical knowledge. Vince Wang’s work is a great example. He’s documenting the prevalence, practices, and impacts of local affordable housing programs by collecting nationwide datasets. He’s also researching mechanisms that make shared equity homeownership models unique in providing lasting benefits for both lower-income homeowners and their communities.

Through ties to the Grounded Solutions Network, an affordable housing organization, Wang has deep ties to the nonprofit world. “Because of my experience and nonprofit network, I want to open up a new world of opportunities for student internships,” explains Wang. He likes to share his lived experience with other international students, who Wang says have a harder time securing internships.

Aside from mentorship, Stevenson offers students a complete reframing of Western design ideals. He believes that landscape restoration is focused on a colonial timeframe, with indigenous worldviews often entirely left out of the conversation. “The indigenous perspective deepens our understanding of the sets of relationships and obligations that allow other species to thrive with human beings in the larger landscape,” says Stevenson.

Every cohort member offers engaging student opportunities. Balderas Guzmán co-leads a five-student team from UW competing in a design competition organized by the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation to design a climate change solution for the city of Tillamook, Oregon. Abbasabadi’s students use emerging digital technologies and methodologies, with the UW campus as a case study to test strategies for energy and carbon reduction. Darko will be teaching sustainable construction and helping students learn the importance of striving towards carbon neutrality in the built environment.

“These new faculty are hiring students and working with them to advance their individual and collective research efforts,” adds Yocom. “They’re bolstering opportunities for direct learning about research.”

A culture of collaboration

While the pursuit of knowledge is valuable, academic learning can sometimes lead to disciplinary silos. Planners might not talk to marine biologists. Architects may ignore foresters. Issues of equity and inclusion can get lost in the pursuit of disciplinary knowledge. That’s why a primary focus for this cohort’s hiring was ensuring collaboration across departments, colleges, and communities to advance multiple ways of understanding built environments.

Balderas Guzmán has wasted no time in identifying colleagues from other colleges at UW that she’d like to work with. “My research is highly collaborative and interdisciplinary,” she says. “And I’m really lucky to work at a university that celebrates that kind of research.” Lingzi Wu also quickly made ties with faculty, working with folks from CBE and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

While every member of the cohort has been building communities within UW, they’re also reaching out beyond campus. Abbasabadi has started collaborating with UW faculty and Seattle’s Department of Sustainability and Environment, as well as industry partners. As part of the UW Applied Research Consortium, she’s working with Seattle design firm Mithūn to develop a computational framework for the optimization of carbon capture enclosures.

With ties to diverse entities, such as Design Build Institute of America, WSDOT, and the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, Wu actively engages with partners to tackle prevailing challenges the industry encounters.

Ties with networked communities will further advance equitable and just practices within the university. Wang will continue his work with nonprofit organizations, working to answer previously unanswerable questions with large data sets: for instance, how will community land trusts play a transformative role in climate change, population health, and the housing market? And how can we scale up the shared equity homeownership model?

For his part, Stevenson will be working with the Shoalwater Bay Tribe and other indigenous communities to align planning with indigenous goals. “I think that a lot of the climate and environment issues we’re dealing with could benefit from the legacy of the original land stewards,” explains Stevenson. “And I think we run the risk in my profession of reproducing ecological colonialism when not considering indigenous perspectives in the process of creating solutions. So, how do we avoid that?”

New people and perspectives

There’s a feeling of excitement that’s accompanied this newly-hired faculty cohort: an awareness that they’ll be working towards a more just, equitable, and beautiful future for the CBE and beyond. And, there’s a sense that these new assistant professors will join other faculty in demonstrating the value and efficacy of the college’s approaches to research and learning.

“This is the first opportunity our college has ever really had to coordinate a set of hires that will build upon existing faculty expertise and additionally focus on community building,” says Yocom. “Coordinating across our departments and amplifying the diverse ways we build knowledge—from empirical to humanities-based approaches—was really exciting to me.”

I love it,” says Abbasabadi. “It’s been so exciting to be hired as part of a cohort. I’ve got a sense of being in community with friends.”


By Jen DeMoss. Jen is a freelance writer based in Michigan.