Andrew Sonta joined the EPFL School for Architecture, Civil, and Environmental Engineering (ENAC) as a Tenure Track Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering on 1st September 2022. He leads the new Civil Engineering and Technology for Human Oriented Sustainability Lab (ETHOS) at the Smart Living Lab in Fribourg. In the following interview, he tells us more about his academic career and research schemes.
You are joining the Smart Living Lab, a research centre for the future of the built environment. What are your expectations?
One thing that excites me is how much the research activities at the Smart Living Lab cross disciplines. By combining different groups of people that focus on everything from computer science to architecture, from engineering to the social sciences, we can begin to tackle complex questions that emerge from connecting these broad specialties. When I think about the future of my own discipline, civil engineering, I think it necessarily will be drawing on important concepts from other disciplines as it deepens its ability to solve questions pertaining to the built environment.
Tell us more about your first impression of your new workplace and host country.
EPFL and the Smart Living Lab are places full of friendly, intelligent, and driven people that aren’t afraid to ask the really knotty and difficult questions that fascinate them, inspire them, and perhaps even keep them up at night. And the best part is that these institutions foster this kind of thinking. I am thrilled to be joining an environment that questions boundaries and relentlessly looks forward.
What does your academic experience look like?
My academic career has been driven by the huge role our built environment plays in our societies. I will never forget learning for the first time as a bachelor student that buildings are responsible for about 40% of total energy consumption, which led me to obtain a BS in civil engineering at Northwestern University, where I also studied economics, architecture, and sustainability and energy. I then went on to Stanford University for my MS and PhD in the sustainable design and construction program, where my research focused on managing commercial buildings to promote both energy efficiency and socio-organizational outcomes. After my PhD, I worked at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute as a postdoctoral fellow.
My academic career so far has led me to understand that our built environment affects society in many ways.
What inspires you about the built environment and its research schemes? And what will your work focus on over the coming years?
My academic career so far has led me to understand that our built environment affects society in many ways. The effects of our buildings and cities on energy systems and the environment are well-known, but it is also important to recognize that what we build impacts our social and human systems. For example, a neighborhood that is designed to be mixed-use and walkable can improve local air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it can also change the ways in which people interact with each other in daily life. Unfortunately, our understanding of these complex interactions between complex systems (built, environmental, and social) are nascent. But, with the massive amounts of data and sensing equipment becoming available to us, I believe we can start to shed light on these complexities, ultimately helping us to design interventions across scales of the built environment that further our environmental and social goals. For example, how can an office building save energy while promoting productivity and collaboration? How can a neighborhood reduce its carbon footprint while fostering social cohesion? These types of questions fascinate me and will drive my lab’s research going forward.
How do you balance your teaching responsibilities with your research projects?
Fortunately, teaching and research complement one another. When we discover new things as a research community, it’s important to think about how that research can complement our curriculums. I look forward to developing courses that draw from my research and help to prepare the future generation of engineers and designers for an evolving world.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I really enjoy the outdoors — whether that’s hiking, running, riding my bike, or rollerblading along the lake. Before starting at EPFL, I hiked the John Muir Trail in California, a 250 mile (400 km) trail in the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, between Yosemite National Park and Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the continental U.S.). I also love cooking, concerts, and the extremely American sport of baseball.