‘Civil engineering developed my scientific and communication skills’

24 Jul 2019

Dr Magdalena Hajdukiewicz. Image: NUI Galway

Dr Magdalena Hajdukiewicz of NUI Galway is aiming to make your time spent in buildings a lot healthier and more environmentally friendly.

After graduating from Wrocław University of Science and Technology in Poland with a master’s in civil engineering, Dr Magdalena Hajdukiewicz travelled to NUI Galway to undertake a PhD on the topic of computational modelling of naturally ventilated internal environments.

Since 2013, she has been working as a postdoctoral researcher and an adjunct lecturer in engineering at NUI Galway.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have always had a curious mind, loved learning and trying new things, as well as building and destroying Lego structures. I wasn’t good at repetitive tasks or learning by heart. I had to understand how things work and then the ‘what if?’ questions started.

My favourite subjects in school were maths and art. Therefore, I thought I would choose architecture as a college course. However, the more I learned about buildings when preparing for entry exams to architecture, I realised I wasn’t interested only in the form and function of buildings, but also in how buildings are constructed and how they perform under different external conditions.

Studying civil engineering enabled me to develop solid scientific, technical, organisational, IT and communication skills.

I graduated during a downturn in civil engineering and construction, and couldn’t find a job in industry that I wanted. So, I started looking at other possibilities and successfully applied for a PhD position at NUI Galway in the area of environmental building performance. Seeing how badly designed and uncomfortable buildings can be and the impact the built environment has on climate change, I knew this was the area I wanted to focus my research on.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I am working in the broad area of sustainability in the built environment. In particular, I am looking at the performance of buildings and how they impact people’s health and comfort, and the environment in terms of their carbon footprint. My first research projects looked at using computational models to predict and optimise indoor conditions such as air temperature and airflow in buildings.

This later expanded into how a building structure can enable passive heating and cooling of indoor spaces, while reducing a building’s energy consumption. As part of this European project with 20 partners, we developed innovative quality assurance tools for construction processes to ensure new and retrofitted buildings meet the required energy efficiency standards.

I have also been involved in an interesting collaborative project with Eindhoven University of Technology, among others. This project focused on computational modelling and wind tunnel testing of elite cyclists for Olympic and Paralympic events. The project tackled particularly difficult areas of modelling and the need to use sophisticated 3D scanning tools and wind tunnel testing to validate numerical models. The research has been widely disseminated and proved a highly effective way of engaging prospective engineering students and the public.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

People spend almost 90pc of their time in buildings. At the same time, buildings and their construction are responsible for 36pc of global final energy consumption and almost 40pc of total CO2 emissions. Therefore, when designing new or retrofitting existing buildings, it is important to ensure safe, healthy and comfortable indoor conditions in buildings while significantly reducing their carbon footprint.

Also, serious consideration must be placed on the environmental impact of materials and products used within buildings. This could have higher embodied energy than that associated with operating the building over its design life.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

My research is highly applied. As part of my projects, I regularly collaborate with industry and community partners including engineering consultancies, building materials manufacturers, building contractors, software developers and community organisations.

These collaborations enable innovative research, addressing the challenges faced by the industry and communities. Novel solutions for building design, construction and operation adopted by the industry can lead to healthier and more sustainable built environment.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Validation and calibration of computational models is crucial to ensure the models represent the real environment accurately. However, obtaining high-quality measured data – either from operating buildings or small-scale laboratory set-ups to support validation – is challenging, time-consuming and expensive.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

There are many misconceptions about civil engineering in general, including that it is not meant for women, that it requires working on a construction site, long hours and lack of flexibility. In the School of Engineering at NUI Galway and in collaboration with Engineers Ireland Steps programme, we regularly organise events. These include school visits, seminars, workshops, family fun and open days to address these misconceptions and show the exciting opportunities and professional independence an engineering career can provide.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Buildings are becoming smarter and embedded with technology that controls indoor environment. However, these controls are generally based on set standards and guidelines, and do not account for personal preference of building occupants.

Furthermore, very often the occupants do not have the expertise or resources to operate these systems efficiently. This can result in uncomfortable indoor environment and high energy bills. I would like to see more research done in the areas of building simulation to improve building performance and adaptive thermal comfort.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.