Top healthy building researcher comes full circle

For Wellington School of Architecture alumna Professor Robyn Phipps, returning to the School to direct the Building Science programme was the logical next step in a career originally inspired by her female professor.

Robyn Phipps Programme Director for Building Science

“Professor Helen Tippett was my Building Science professor when I was a student,” says Professor Phipps. “She’s widely regarded as the leader of women in New Zealand’s built environment industry. As well as being the first female professor at the School and the first woman president of the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZILA), she also founded the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). It’s big footsteps to follow in!”

After more than two decades at Massey University, Professor Phipps joined the Wellington School of Architecture this year, as Programme Director of Building Science—a growing area of the School and one that’s at the forefront of much-needed conversations about sustainability.

“One of the things that drew me back to Wellington was my respect for the work and research that the School does. It's full of world-class researchers doing really exciting things connected to climate change, housing health, robotics, innovative technologies, and renewable energy.

“The School is so connected to other areas of the University, such as the School of Engineering and the School of Health, that you have the opportunity to work with a wide variety of people who think outside the box and pull together to find solutions.”

Professor Phipps’s research focuses on healthy buildings for both people and the planet, building on work from He Kainga Oranga, the Housing and Health Research Programme. “We test and generate evidence that low-cost improvements to housing provides tangible benefits for the health of the occupant, and co-benefits for the environment.”

This research has now extended to looking at classroom buildings at schools. “We’ve been researching solar air heaters—panels that sit on the roof of the classroom and quickly heat up, warming the room. Generating 55°C of free heat at 9 am in a Palmerston North winter shows just how effective these technologies are,” she explains. “Not only does it reduce money spent, but the teachers were reporting that the classroom ‘felt better and smelled better’.”

This area of research had always been attractive to Professor Phipps. “It’s practical stuff that you can do straight away. We need to take the low-hanging fruit. Regenerating native forest is essential but will take many decades to reduce carbon, there’s still lots of stuff we can do in the meantime which will make an impact. If we can find ways to harvest renewable energy that takes nothing out of the environment then that’s great. If we can use that to make a building warmer and drier, then that’s great too.

“A low carbon future is the ultimate goal—healthy homes that are low carbon,” says Professor Phipps, who is also a Director of the New Zealand Green Building Council.

Improving the quality of buildings was something that inspired her return to research. After graduating and working in architectural practice, she noticed that some of the building solutions were creating problems with indoor air quality. “Back in the late 80s there were a lot of chemicals being used in buildings that were causing problems for occupants, and damp, mouldy buildings also cause health problems. My interest in this led me to doing my PhD in building systems, looking at where pollutants come in, and where the opportunities to remove them are. It’s about thinking holistically—thinking of the building as a system.”

The opportunity to spend time researching problems and envisioning solutions was also what drew Professor Phipps to academia. “While I was still in practice, I saw an academic job posted on our noticeboard. It was serendipitous really. I wasn’t looking for a career in academia, but I knew I wanted to investigate different building solutions. While in practice, the challenge of meeting day to day deadlines left me with little room for exploring solutions. Moving into academia gave me crucial thinking time. My research is all about practical testing and experimentation.”

Professor Phipps aims to grow the Building Science programme. “There is a huge need for graduates with skills in sustainable building systems. Every time you open a newspaper there are stories about housing unaffordability and climate change. Those are two of the big challenges that we face, not just in New Zealand but globally. It's an area where we need to take a multidisciplinary approach. Lots of people—from architects to psychologists, to computer scientists, to material scientists, to civil engineers—need to pull together to find solutions.”

As well as being passionate about healthy buildings, Robyn—like Professor Tippett before her—is a passionate advocate for women entering construction. “I want to inspire women to consider careers in this area. You can see the impact of your work constructed around you and it’s there for your lifetime. It’s exciting!”

Professor Phipps keeps in touch with her graduates to see how their careers are blossoming, as well as being actively involved in NAWIC and preparing her current students to be future advocates for women in construction.

“it’s a really rewarding career where you can make a difference, follow your passions, and make an impact on the world. It’s about protecting our future.”