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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Henry Miller is proof that inspiration for sustainable design is all around us.
cylinder and wall

A recent graduate of the Master of Architecture program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Albany, New York, Miller created a sustainable building application that successfully addresses contaminated, abandoned areas, a significant problem for many communities.

Miller’s design won first place in the “Component Category” of the second annual CONCRETE THINKING FOR A SUSTAINABLE WORLD international student design competition, which was sponsored by Portland Cement Association (PCA) and administered by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA). The 2007 competition challenged college students from six countries to investigate an innovative use of portland cement-based material to achieve sustainable design objectives.

At the time of the competition, Miller was living in Albany, a city plagued by brownfields; abandoned areas that were once used for industrial purposes but now contain hazardous waste. These areas can only be reused once they’ve been decontaminated, and until then they go unattended and damage both the environment and appearance of the community.

At the same time, Miller noticed that many communities were terminating their plastic recycling programs and discarding the plastic in their landfills for cost reasons.

He wanted to come up with a solution that would help to eliminate brownfields and also help to recycle plastics.

“My intent was to develop a method by which municipalities like Albany could simply and cheaply deal with brownfields and, thus, develop them in such a way that both benefit the community and municipality as a whole,” Miller said.

Helping the Community

cylinder and wall

To address these twin problems, Miller took two distinct approaches. First, he created a resourceful and environmentally-friendly way to re-use the plastic that was dumped in the landfills. He wanted to mix plastic with another element to make it more durable. His immediate thought was concrete.

“Concrete is simple to work with, can render both simple and complex geometries, depending upon the forms, and is universally available,” Miller said.

He granulated plastic that would be otherwise headed to landfills and included it in a cement mix. The concrete he created is just as strong as traditional concrete made with completely mined aggregate. By reclaiming and integrating plastic in the concrete mix, he eliminated the need to recycle the plastic and spared both the financial and environmental cost of mining virgin aggregate.

Miller’s second approach took the contaminated soil from the brownfields and combined it with portland cement into both a wet and dry process to create bricks. The bricks he created withstood harsh rains and the freeze thaw process.

“It was my intention to establish a protocol by which these sites might be addressed using a common denominator (portland cement) that is inexpensive, regularly available, and easy to work with,” Miller said.

Though the competition only required students to conceptualize a design, Miller went one step further. He actually created the sustainable application he designed and used the concrete to build a screen and a wall. His extra efforts proved that his design was not only innovative, but also viable for real-world applications.

Dedication to Sustainable Design

Miller has made the transition from university to the real world rather smoothly. Upon graduating, he accepted a position at The Architectural Team in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

Sustainable developments are still one of his top priorities. He is currently working toward his license and getting LEED certified.

“I’d like to see more research into what other materials that would otherwise be destined for landfill, can be mixed with concrete and fashioned into building components,” Miller said.

In the meantime, award-winning applications such as Henry Miller’s are continuing to grow the possibilities of sustainable design.