It’s an age-old question: Why do some things endure while others fail to thrive? How do we – as scholars, designers, and builders – connect the timeless with the timely?

Tanyel Bulbul, an associate professor who has been with the Myers-Lawson School of Construction (jointly housed in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and the College of Engineering) since 2010, grew up surrounded by ancient structures in her native Turkey. “I was inspired by the impact of buildings and the power they have on people,” she said. “You see a structure that is 2,000 years old and it affects you. Who builds these? How are they staying?”

Bulbul’s work synthesizes the tangible world of buildings with the abstract medium of computational design. She teaches students to make virtual buildings using building information modeling (BIM) programs, and how to use sensors to translate physical buildings into data with practical applications.

If longevity first drew Bulbul to study structures, a more modern experience led to her present research combining classical design principles with advanced information technologies. After working for a commercial construction firm, Bulbul designed digital content for the first online teaching platform at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture.

Coding web pages prompted her to complete a doctorate in computational design from the fabled program at Carnegie Mellon University, where Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon helped pioneer the study of human rationality and computers.

Now, the models Bulbul builds with students are made from data. Her students learn a comprehensive computer-based approach to construction design through BIM programs. “BIM is a suite of software that helps you design a building as completely as possible before the building is built using programs like Revit,” Bulbul said.

Professor talks closely with row of students working on laptop computers.
Students often refer to Bulbul’s courses as “intense.” They also describe her as personable and attuned to students’ needs and interests. Photo by Chiravi Patel for Virginia Tech.

BIM’s value is largely predictive: it allows stakeholders to head off problems during planning. This feature helps prevent later inconvenient and costly changes that may even require the demolition of completed work.

Construction’s interdisciplinary nature requires collaboration among experts who speak different professional languages, like those who work in procurement or in different engineering disciplines. Bulbul observed that mismatched perspectives often result from meshing all of those languages together for a complete design package. BIM helps identify and predict where problems occur, reducing guesswork.

At root, her own research is human facing, even though it depends on and expands cutting-edge science using remote sensors and advanced scanning technologies. Bulbul emphasized that in smart design, it’s people who become smarter by adding sensors and tools, not inanimate buildings.

Focusing on usability, she asks, “What is the best solution for presenting information to someone working on a construction site?” Her research explores how tools should be designed to fit the way real people think and act. She believes real advancement must consider user utility; it doesn’t simply promote what technology can do in theory.

And tools should be tailored for a specific job function: “X-ray vision might be useful for an inspector, but not for a laborer,” said Bulbul. “We can create a holographic image, but is that really what the laborer needs?”

Bulbul is currently developing a variable heads-up, hands-free device for displaying information to workers with different informational needs. This device – which could one day be as simple as a contact lens – will communicate visually in a technical language and format specific to the needs of the user, whether a laborer, an inspector, or a designer.

The evolution of products and processes has marked both her experience as a student and as a teacher. Although computer aided drafting programs began with AutoCAD in the 1960s (“pre-mouse,” Bulbul noted), constant changes in educational technology require her to upgrade her own skills and the tools she uses to instruct students every time a course is offered.

And where pencils and paper were once the primary tools of the profession, today’s students have access to 3-D printers and laptops with gigabytes of memory. She noted that students already operate at a high level of technical expertise and are adept at trouble-shooting skills they’ll need in their careers, like using the internet to find ready-made design solutions for their projects.

Teaching assistant Jeremy Withers referred to Bulbul’s classes as “intense.” However, Withers, a doctoral  student in environmental design and planning who works in 3-D modeling, believes her greatest attribute may be personal rather than technical. “She listens with the intent to hear,” he said, “not just so she can get to her point.”

While Withers noted Bulbul’s research is at the field’s forefront, he also emphasized she pays attention to the needs of many people with different interests – an uncommon skill.

Bulbul has made a career out of listening, learning, and adapting. Now, she uses that experience to create tools the construction industry can use to engage in better conversations when it matters most: before work even begins.

— Written by L. Maria Ingram