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Engineers work on housing project

The Center for American Progress declared in 2010 that New York City’s South Bronx is the poorest district in the nation.

For decades, underdevelopment of the area has left homes neglected and deteriorating. The district’s population has struggled with health and safety issues associated with their environment, said Clinton Andrews, professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

With his partners at the Rutgers Center for Green Building, Andrews has spent the last three years analyzing these health and safety issues.

“[The center’s researchers] want to improve the comfort people feel in their homes,” he said. “To do that, we had to discover what is discomforting them in the first place.”

The research team began their work at Intervale Green, a multi-family housing complex that the non-profit Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation built in 2009. Andrews said the organization built the green complex to reduce the environment’s negative impact on its occupants.

But a team survey revealed Intervale Green’s residents had complaints about issues including pests and air quality, even though the building had only been used for a year, Andrews said.

With a new grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, Andrews said the center’s researchers have now partnered with Rutgers School of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to quantify the residents’ survey responses.

Early tests showed high levels of small particles caused air pollution in many apartments, Andrews said. The team plans to work with the department to determine the exact source of these pollutants, along with other problems like termite infestation.

“It was important that our method was cost-effective,” he said. “If it works for [Intervale Green], it could work for other multi-family homes in cities like New Brunswick.”

Jie Gong, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said the team integrated two technologies — spatial and thermal imaging — to analyze the exteriors and interiors of buildings.

Gong said he originally used this integrated method to study the effects of Hurricane Sandy on homes across New Jersey, but tests on buildings on Busch campus proved the process is also useful for identifying infrastructure issues.

He said the scanners allow the researchers to create and study a clear picture of how the building operates.  If the scanner shows an area with a higher temperature than its surroundings, the team visits the area to determine the cause of the temperature difference.

“We have found a way to put all the information we need in one place,” Gong said. “We can identify an issue — whether the building has rodents, termites, moisture or some other problem — and that issue’s location in an easier, less intrusive way than people have previously.”

Once Gong completes the calibration of the equipment on Busch campus, he said the team will visit individual Intervale Green apartments to compare the results of the center’s survey to the technology’s findings and conventional professional evaluations.

From there, MaryAnn Sorensen Allacci, research project coordinator at the Center for Green Building, said the team plans to start thinking about solutions to the occupants’ issues.

Allacci said once the project has been completed in the South Bronx, the method could spread to local areas.

“We’re tackling the hardest [areas] first,” she said.

Much of the project’s success and availability, Allacci said, depends on the people involved. The project under the Department of Housing and Urban Development grant has been a collaborative effort not just among Rutgers schools, but communities and building operators.

“On top of the data calling for change in a building, we need to work with the people who can make those changes,” she said. “The project depends on [developing] strong relationships like the ones we’ve established with Intervale Green’s operators and residents.”

She said after the team completes their analysis at Intervale Green, they will also test the technology at a 1997 Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation building.

Since the structure is much older than Intervale Green, Allacci said their analysis will be the real test of the technology’s abilities.

When the grant funding the project expires on Oct. 31, 2015, Allacci said the research team’s work might still continue.

“At the center, we want to improve the experience of being in a building. We want people to be comfortable in their homes,” she said. “That’s an on-going project.”

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