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Office of Global Affairs

November 13, 2015

Seeing the future of building at Disney

The integrated building management system.

The integrated building management system.Disney Research China

What does innovation look like? At Disney Research China it looks like a modest, four-story historic building in Shanghai’s Xuhui District. Fellow UW Innovation Summit speakers Adina Mangubat, Ben Waters and I were invited inside for a tour to find out why such an unassuming place from the outside is on the frontier of building sciences.

Disney Research China is a part of Disney’s global network of labs and the only one dedicated primarily to research of the built environment. Their vision is to develop scientific and engineering knowledge of the natural synergies in urban infrastructure. They are using the $5.5 billion dollar construction of the Shanghai Disneyland Resort as a testbed for cutting-edge construction and environmental engineering technologies and processes. Their hope is to apply the lessons learned there to reduce the environmental impact of Disney’s construction and operations around the globe.

Gina Neff, Adina Mangubat and Ben Waters

Gina Neff, Adina Mangubat and Ben Waters

They started with the building that houses their own research facility. Cheryl Chi, who holds her Ph.D. degree from Stanford University, gave us a tour of the 4,500 square foot facility. To renovate the building, the team started with a laser scan of the building that helped generate a digital, 3-D rendering of the existing structure. They then used Building Information Modeling, or BIM, a sophisticated computer-aided design tool, to coordinate the design and construction of the structural and building systems, and interior fit-out. Through the use of BIM and integrated system design, the design team was able to squeeze the mechanical system into one-third of the typical ceiling space to optimize the use of the limited floor-to-ceiling height. BIM is the key research topic for several lab members including Chi and Helen Chen, who both received their degrees at Stanford, one of the world’s leading experts in these systems.

The result is a building that rivals the smartest buildings in the world. It includes an integrated building management system (IBMS) that optimizes energy and water consumption with comfort of the people inside the building. The system analyzes real-time data in close to 400 sensors that monitor 13 metrics, including temperature, humidity, daylight and air quality, and then makes necessary adjustments for efficiency and comfort. Solar panels on the roof supplement the power for the buildings’ electrical outlets. Inside, the design leaves mechanical systems exposed, allowing visitors (like us) to marvel at the ducts, pipes and conduits running throughout the building, a choice that Chi said was rare in China but is seen as a cool urban design aesthetic in the west.

The Disney Research China building in Shanghai.

The Disney Research China building in Shanghai.Disney Research China

One of the key projects for the Disney Research China lab is designing new ways to measure and plan for efficient district-scale infrastructure to support sustainable cities. In addition to using such sensor data and analysis on a building-by-building case, they are working on using data from entire district of buildings to quantify relationships between design features and performance of urban infrastructure systems. Their findings could have implications for how cities rethink the delivery of water and energy to neighborhoods and could improve the health of urban ecosystems.

We were there in part to exchange ideas about the direction of “engineering project organization,” a type of work that both Chi and Chen do and that we do in the lab that I co-direct  with Carrie Sturts Dossick in the UW Department of Construction Management. The goal for both of our labs is to improve the engineering outcomes of high-performance projects by improving how people collaborate on hard problems. In that sense, innovation often looks like multidisciplinary labs like Disney’s, where teams of people with different types training work together to create the future — one design decision at a time.

Gina Neff is an associate professor of communication; Adina Mangubat is CEO of Spiral Genetics and a 2009 graduate; and Ben Waters is a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and CEO of Wibotic Inc.