Students, Community Benefit from Paxton Marshall's Sustainable Agenda

March 24, 2009 — From the look of his most recent course list – Global Sustainability, Sustainable Housing Design and Construction, Designing a Sustainable Future, Engineering in Community Settings – and some of the projects he has engaged in over the past decade – Solar House, ecoMOD, Learning Barge – it is probably safe to say that Paxton Marshall's favorite color is green.

Having grown up on a small, self-sustaining farm, Marshall, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Virginia, developed a deep appreciation for the environment and the importance of taking care of it. It's an appreciation he instills in his students by providing them with opportunities to develop their own creativity and resourcefulness around energy and sustainability, he said.

Whitney Newton, a fourth-year civil engineering student, is a case in point. As a first-year student, she landed in Marshall's Introduction to Engineering class. Impressed by his laid-back teaching style and inspired by his encouragement and support, Newton enrolled in Marshall's Sustainable Housing Design and Construction class, which allowed her to apply what she was learning to two real-world projects, ecoMOD and Learning Barge.
ecoMOD, conceived by architecture professor John Quale, develops ecological, modular and affordable house prototypes. Learning Barge, a floating environmental education field station conceived by architecture professor Phoebe Crisman, engages urban kids in hands-on exploration and learning about the Elizabeth River, one of the most polluted estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Marshall serves as engineering director for both.

"With both Learning Barge and ecoMOD, I work on the stormwater management team, and on the structural team," Newton said. "There are many challenges, but Paxton is always there to guide us. He pushes us along in terms of what he thinks will be the best product."

Marshall said it's amazing what students can accomplish. "They know they have deliverables that are going to be a part of a house that people will live in, and that it has to be right," he said.

Lessons learned from one ecoMOD prototype inform the design and engineering of the next. As an example, ecoMOD1, built in 2006, features a commercial data acquisition system that Marshall's students adapted for residential energy monitoring use. The data gathered from the system has helped students and faculty evaluate the effectiveness of ecoMOD1's passive and active systems in reducing operating costs and improving environmental performance.

Unfortunately, the ecoMOD1 monitoring system was expensive and difficult to install, so Marshall's students began designing a next-generation, wireless monitoring system. After two years of effort, that system is now being installed in the ecoMOD3 prototype.

Eventually, Marshall and his students want to create a monitoring system with a universal design that can be developed for commercial and consumer use.

"From the beginning, our goal on the engineering side was to measure energy use on a timely basis, and to break down how much energy was being used for heating, cooling, hot water, and cooking – information that the typical homeowner never gets," Marshall said.

Students from the Engineering in Community Settings class that Marshall currently teaches with environmental science professor Bob Swap are working with the Charlottesville Community Design Center's SPARK! Program to conduct energy audits and analysis for upgrades to the houses of low-income families in the area.

And students in Marshall's Designing a Sustainable Future class are required to engage in community service projects while exploring the global challenges of sustainability. In 2008, the University piloted a food composting initiative in its dining halls, which was a direct outcome of student efforts in this class.

Crisman, who collaborates with Marshall on the Learning Barge, said she sees him as an "interesting mix between utopian thinker and pragmatist." She admires his ethical motivation and commitment to long-term sustainability, and how he supports his students as they faced the challenges of developing photovoltaic, wind and solar thermal systems for a floating building – one that must be able to produce and store enough energy to keep the barge functional even during a long stretch of cold and cloudy days.

"His ability to collaborate, to listen to and motivate students, and to be open-minded is pretty unusual," she said. "What's more remarkable is that nothing we're doing for Learning Barge have we done before. It's all new and innovative, and sometimes scary because of that, and yet he remains very calm amidst the chaos, which is a wonderful thing."

— By Kathleen Valenzi Knaus