Physics sheds light on the study of architecture

Andreas Schüler with an infrared camera in his laboratory. ©2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Andreas Schüler with an infrared camera in his laboratory. ©2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Andreas Schüler, an expert in specialty materials for solar energy conversion, is this year’s winner of both the PolySphère award for best teacher at EPFL’s School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC) and the PolySphère d’Or award for best teacher at EPFL. The awards are given out by EPFL students, who selected Schüler for his outstanding teaching in his Building Physics class. 

Sometimes, people discover their vocations in the strangest places. That’s what happened with Schüler, who stumbled upon his love of technology in the middle of a forest. He was in primary school, and his teacher – who had decided to hold the class outdoors – asked him to dismantle two old telephones and then link them together. This hands-on experience with turning sounds into electronic signals was the starting point in a long career of studying physics phenomena, which he now teaches at EPFL.

Today, Schüler, originally from Krefeld, Germany, teaches a class in building physics for Bachelor’s and Master’s students in architecture. The two PolySphère awards he won are handed out by AGEPoly, EPFL’s general student association. The PolySphère d’Or award recognizes excellence in teaching across the entire university, while the ENAC award is specific to that school – where Schüler has been working for 22 years. His students commended his “listening skills and personal investment.” “This is the best honor I could’ve received at EPFL because it comes directly from the young men and women I teach,” says Schüler. He draws an analogy with an aspect of building physics: “It’s really hard to find the right temperature for a given room, since each occupant’s perceptions and preferences will be different. You can’t make everyone happy. But I’d like to think I’ve achieved that feat in my classes – and for that I’m very happy and grateful.”

My job is to spark students' creativity about science while gradually introducing more technical language.

Andreas Schüler, 2023 Polysphère d'or award winner

Room temperature is just one of the many factors to consider when evaluating the physics of a building. To make the concept tangible for his students, Schüler uses an infrared camera to show them how thermal radiation affects humans as well as windows made of different types of glass. Such experiments supplement his more theoretical lectures, during which he tries to engage his students in lively discussions. “My job is to spark their creativity about science while gradually introducing more technical language. And for that, I’ve got to understand what they need,” says Schüler. “I also try to convey the message that if they have a good understanding of the mechanisms of physics, they can design buildings that are more energy-efficient and more comfortable for occupants. What’s more, if architects take these factors into account from the start of a project, they can make better choices in the early stages.” Schüler spent a number of years studying new breakthroughs in materials and technology – especially in the areas of acoustics, insulation, lighting and energy efficiency – while he was a researcher at EPFL’s Solar Energy and Building Physics Laboratory, headed by Prof. Jean-Louis Scartezzini.

2023 Polysphère d'or award.© 2023 EPFL - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Faith in clean energy
Schüler now heads ENAC’s research group on nanotechnology for solar energy conversion. But he’s always been one of those who believes firmly in the potential of clean energy. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Freiburg in Germany and a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan in the US. He then returned to Europe to do a PhD at the University of Basel, where his research looked at the use of nanomaterials in coatings to make them capable of absorbing solar energy. “That was back in 1996, and people thought we were dreaming when we said that solar energy could one day become a viable power source,” he says. “And now, solar energy makes up over 6% of Switzerland’s energy mix.” Schüler’s other research topics include the optical and electrical properties of thin films. “While it’s important to boost the yields of these materials, we also need to think about how sustainable their components are.”

Schüler is part of a multicultural, creative research group and has thrived in the “international and inspiring atmosphere” at EPFL. He came to the university after a stint in Paris to learn French. In his early days at EPFL, when not at the lab, Schüler would compose world music and play it with his peers – fellow amateur musicians from a variety of countries. “It’s the best way for people to form bonds,” he says, drawing a parallel with teaching, which he’s now proud to be able to do in French.

Author: Rebecca Mosimann

Source: People

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