PhD stories: Clayton McDowell

PhD candidate within the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC)

The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Each month we will meet one and hear their story

Clayton McDowell PhD candidate within the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC), was recently in Dubai as student team leader and project manager of the Desert Rose House Solar Decathlon team, and recently won the AIRAH Student of the Year – Higher Education Research Award.

When did you commence HDR study and what is the working title of your thesis?

The working title of my thesis is “Development of Evaluation Methods for the Effectiveness of Retrofits in Low Income Residential Buildings”. I commenced my PhD in August of 2014 and aim to submit at the end of 2019.

Please give a broad description of the topic or question you investigated as part of your research

My research is part of UOW’s Energy Efficiency in the 3rd Age (EE3A) project which was one of twenty projects funded through the federal governments Low Income Energy Efficiency Program (LIEEP). This has seen me audit over 200 low income buildings across the greater Illawarra and collect data on energy consumption and internal air temperatures. As part of the project we retrofitted 184 of these buildings with energy efficiency and thermal comfort upgrades. The questions that I seek to answer are how can we efficiently audit buildings in the future, as in, what are the significant building and occupant characteristics that influence energy and thermal comfort in these low income buildings? And secondly to study the effectiveness of the chosen retrofits and develop a retrofit selection framework for future energy efficiency programs.

Can you provide some background on how you came to HDR research (e.g. undergrad degree & university studied at – honours project – PhD + any breaks in between)?

The story of how I came to HDR research is winding and my younger self never anticipated walking this path. I studied my Bachelor of Engineering majoring in Mechanical at the University of Wollongong and during this time I fell in love with the idea of renewable energy and completed my undergraduate thesis on heliostats (automated mirrors that reflect sunlight). I wanted to help shift Australia to a cleaner future and do my part for climate change. At this stage the engineering faculty had an amazing track record with a 100% employment rate for all engineering graduates. But come the time to graduate we were faced with the global financial crisis and many engineering firms were laying people off or closing their doors. So, I took the first opportunity that arose as a graduate engineer for a hydraulic workshop designing and building pump stations for underground coal mines. After a few years I was promoted to senior engineer, but this was still in the opposite field of my dreams so to remain up to date with the renewable energy field I again turned to UOW and completed a Master of Engineering Practice part time.

After completing this degree an opportunity came for me to work as a Project Engineer at a Sugar Mill in northern NSW. The mill has a 30MW co-generation powerplant which I saw as a steppingstone into my dream field. After about eighteen months at the Sugar Mill I was having a conversation over morning tea with the director of the Sugar Mill about buildings. He noticed how passionate I was about this topic and pointed it out to me. This was the critical turning moment for me. It was as if a penny had dropped and I realised yes, I am really passionate about sustainable buildings, what am I doing working at a Sugar Mill. I found that through my masters my thinking had shifted from why don’t we produce clean energy to why are we using so much energy to begin with, specifically in buildings. At the same time, I had been following the construction of the Sustainable Building Research Centre (SBRC) at UOW’s Innovation Campus and decided that if I wanted to get into this industry then I wanted to learn from the best experts I knew. Just over three months later I started my PhD at the SBRC.

In one sentence, describe the ‘journey’ of your PhD study at UOW?

The journey has been long and tiring but it has led me to very rewarding self-discoveries and opportunities never dreamed of such as leading a team of 200 students to build a dementia friendly sustainable home and take it all the way to the deserts of Dubai.

How did you and/or your approach change over that time (how you imagined it would be when you began, how it actually was, and how you view it now you’ve finished)?

When I signed up to a PhD on a large research project, I was not completely aware of just how big of a project it was. It was multidisciplinary and involved engineers, social marketers and human geographers as well as many industry partners. Through this collaboration my approach evolved and resulted in us collecting an incredible amount of data visiting hundreds of people multiple times over a two-year period. My PhD then evolved to how do you manage and process all this data and how to then package that into a manageable amount to achieve in a PhD. My approach also changed from intensively understanding buildings with high levels of data to how do you generate reliable information for policy makers using data that is cost effective and achievable to obtain. I am happy with the direction that this has taken and the lesson learnt is to always have an eye on how you can enable your research to have an actual impact on competition and whether that impact is achievable.

What were some highlights of your HDR study?

If we are strictly speaking on my PhD research itself then as mentioned above, I visited 200 homes across the greater Illawarra. As part of this we had funding to provide energy efficiency and thermal comfort retrofits to 184 of these with upgrades ranging from replacement of refrigerators, installation of insulation, solar hot water, ceiling fans and many more. Six months after the retrofits were in place, I had to visit many of the homes again for a third round of data collection. The reaction of how grateful the participants were and the impact that these retrofits had on their lives is the most rewarding and biggest highlight of my HDR study. It is both rewarding and incredibly sad the effect that a $150 ceiling fan can have on someone’s life. To be part of a project that has a direct and immediate impact to people’s lives does not come often but is to be cherished when they do.

But if this question is more holistic to my time as an HDR student than the biggest highlight is the Solar Decathlon and our Desert Rose House. My PhD journey led me to create and lead a team of multidisciplinary students to design and build a house that aimed to improve the quality of life for people living with aged related disabilities and more specifically for people living with dementia. As part of this we had to construct our Desert Rose in under 15 days in Dubai and compete against 14 other teams from across the world. Here I had the opportunity to tour royal family members through our house and we were awarded second place overall along with 8 other places. This was an incredible highlight and a once in a lifetime opportunity.

What were the lowlights?

It is normal to have days where research does not go the way you had hoped, a program doesn’t work as intended, an experiment fails, a paper is rejected. But the biggest lowlight in my PhD was experiencing how some of our low-income elderly citizens live. Discovering that some have to choose whether to heat their homes or to eat because they cannot afford both, or that some people’s living rooms are below 16°C for 90% of winter hours, or that some people can no longer open and close their windows because we do not design window latches to be operated by people with arthritis. These chilling discoveries were completely unintentional and were the lowlight of my PhD and they shocked me enough to delay my PhD and dedicate two years to the Solar Decathlon project in an attempt to draw more light to these issues.

Describe the most important things for PhD study.

There are many things that are important to PhD study. I would rank self-motivation and organisation as the two most critical. The first point can be greatly assisted by choosing a topic that you are incredibly passionate about as working on something that you love is always more enjoyable and always easier to wake up in the morning and get stuck into. The second point of being organised is a lesson that needs to be learnt and practiced. I am fortunate that I had spent most of my career in industry working as a project manager so keeping everything organised became second nature, but time spent organising will be paid back many times over in the future.

What advice do you (or would you give) to those considering HDR study or currently studying?

HDR study can lead you to many paths and choices but you need to consider what you wish to do once you finish your study. What is it that you want to get out of undertaking this serious commitment. But at the same time, you need to be open to new opportunities. When I started, I never thought that I would end up leading a Solar Decathlon team, and that in turn has opened many more opportunities.

My other advice seems obvious but is often overlooked is that longitudinal studies and studies that have lots of field work require an immense amount of time, so you need to choose your topic wisely and thoroughly consider the time commitments to achieve your goals. It has taken me three years just to collect my data but the lessons I have learnt in doing this have been incredibly rewarding and have dramatically shifted my world view and ultimately my life in new directions with opportunities I never could have imagined.

What are you doing now and/or how do you plan to utilise your research degree in future? What has it given you that will help in your future career?

I have learnt a tremendous amount from my journey as an HDR student, some of this is through intentional learning by seeking out knowledge and through planned research but a large amount is through unintentional discoveries. At the moment I am still completing my PhD part time and am in the final stages of data analysis and write up. Coinciding with this I am working full time as an Associate Research Fellow in developing new living laboratories and I am assisting with the rebuild of the Desert Rose house on UOW’s Innovation Campus. I am also using what I have learnt through my PhD and the Desert Rose to participate as a member of the Global Challenges Keystone ‘PIECES’ team (People with dementia can be Included & Enabled through social Connections, Environments & Services).

I plan on using my research degree to continue to advocate for sustainable buildings and buildings that will support and promote a high quality of life for people of all diversities. After participating in the Solar Decathlon and seeing the innovative power that this has in bringing multidisciplinary teams of students, research and industry together to solve complex problems I endeavour to one day bring this competition to the shores of Australia and hopefully pool together the collective knowledge of Australia and our Pacific Nation neighbours to help address the issues of climate change and living well.

How do you think your research can change the world?

Through my research I have been able to contribute with a new auditing tool to assist with answering the question of how best to upgrade our buildings for the future. This research has also helped to expose how our low income elderly citizens are living and I hope that this results in more consideration being placed on designing for ageing in place and sustainability.

Taking this further it led me to initiate and lead Team UOW’s Desert Rose House which had the aim of changing the way the world views homes for the elderly by designing a house that is architecturally inspiring, celebrates life and demonstrates a house that is adaptable to an aging person’s needs. Through this project we achieved 198 media mentions reaching an estimated 10 million people across the globe. Our website received 60,000 views from 122 different countries and our social media posts have reached over 300,000. We were able to reach 26,500 people through 42 public exhibitions with audiences ranging from high school students to technical groups and retirees and have also delivered 80 presentations both nationally and internationally to broad audiences reaching over 5,000 people. Once the Desert Rose is rebuilt it will remain as a beacon of what is possible and will continue to be used for further research and education purposes. I hope that through this we have shifted public perception on buildings and that this will have impact on our buildings of the future and ultimately the lives of the people who occupy them.

Find out about some of Clayton's papers

Read about SBRC

Read more about the project