Catherine Gorlé | Improving the Design of Sustainable Urban Buildings Using Computational Technologies

The goal of creating sustainable urban environments is to naturally integrate buildings within the setting and the city infrastructure. To accomplish this, civil engineers have to understand how air flow affects the local wind climate, temperature, and air quality in a building.

Catherine Gorlé
Catherine Gorlé
Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics
—Photo by Eileen Barroso

It’s a topic so interesting to Catherine Gorlé, assistant professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, that she transitioned her research in fluid mechanics from aerospace and mechanical engineering to civil engineering and the future challenge of sustainable urban living.

“My motivation for focusing on the civil engineering problems is that they can profoundly impact sustainable development of urban areas, which is highly relevant given the strong increase in the percentage of the world population that lives in cities,” she says.

Computer-driven simulations are important tools in her study of pollutant dispersion in urban areas, the design of optimal natural ventilation strategies in buildings, the assessment of wind energy resources, and the calculation of wind loads on buildings. But because she is simulating components of the natural environment, which is influenced by variable flow conditions and sophisticated physics like turbulence, there’s an added complexity: uncertainty.

“In my work, we develop methods to quantify this uncertainty,” she says. “So an engineer has the necessary information to base a design decision on the simulation results.”

Working to make these predictive simulations more accurate, Gorlé relies on high-performance computing technology to execute large-scale Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) simulations. During her years of study, she’s seen a significant advance in computer resources, so she embraces the opportunity to transform how computers are used in the design process.

“The goal is to develop computational technologies that can profoundly impact decisions during the design phase of sustainable construction projects,” she says. “And that also support risk assessment and response strategies to hazardous events in the urban environment.”

She performs validation with experimental data to evaluate the predictive capabilities of the computer models. Both laboratory measurements, obtained in wind tunnels, and measurements performed in the field, are used.

“Field measurements are more challenging, but they are the only full representation of the complexity of the problems we study, and therefore essential for the validation process,” she says.

Although she primarily focuses on civil engineering flows, her work also has valuable practical implications in aerospace and mechanical engineering.

“Fluid mechanics is relevant to a wide range of engineering problems,” she says. “Using computational fluid dynamics it is possible to study external flows such as the flow over an aircraft or a building, or internal flow—such as the flow in a combustion engine or the flow in a micro scale structure to cool a computer chip. The methods we develop for quantifying uncertainties in our simulations can also be transferred to these problems.”

Before joining Columbia Engineering, Gorlé was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Turbulence Research at Stanford University; a research professor at the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in Belgium, funded by a Pegasus Marie Curie fellowship; and a research associate in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Stanford University. She has also been a visiting professor at Politecnico di Milano in Italy.

BSc, Delft University of Technology, 2002; MSc, Delft University of Technology, 2005; PhD, von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in cooperation with the University of Antwerp, 2010

—by Amy Biemiller

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