In this Q&A, RMF Engineering’s Miles Martschink, PE, LEED AP, Sustainability Engineer and Gregory Hudson, PE, HFDP, CHC, Project Manager, discuss a new modeling technique called Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) that can help with tackling atypical engineering scenarios. Read on to learn about how the team employed this innovative modeling process to deliver a highly-functional burn center at a prominent medical campus.
Can you describe your roles at RMF Engineering? What does your day-to-day entail?
Miles: As a sustainability engineer, I take a holistic approach to creating resilient and energy-efficient building systems. I evaluate how occupants use a space—whether it’s a new space or an existing building—and use energy modeling to help determine how to meet the client’s sustainability goals. That might simply be carbon reduction or it might be achieving complete neutrality.
Gregory: I’ve been a buildings engineer for the last 12 years with a focus on the healthcare sector. Over the years, I’ve worked with countless hospitals, labs, and outpatient surgery centers to develop MEP systems with adequate redundancies to ensure continuous operation and that fulfill the specific needs of these spaces, both for the faculty and patients. We’re currently building a national healthcare engineering initiative, pooling our resources across the company’s eleven offices to bring our expertise to a broader range of clients.
What are you working on today? Any trends or exciting new technologies you are seeing in the industry?
Miles: There is a great deal of interest in decarbonization strategies these days, particularly on college campuses. We’re helping many of our clients transition from outdated heating systems to more efficient and environmentally-driven options such as low-temperature hot water systems and geothermal heat pumps. We’re also seeing a big shift towards renovations as opposed to building new. More and more people are asking: How do we take what we already have and optimize it moving forward?
Gregory: In healthcare, we’re still actively dealing with all of the issues that came to light from COVID-19. Hospitals are already anticipating the next pandemic, so we are helping future-proof their systems and build in flexibility for situations such as dealing with patient overflow. We are also seeing a larger push towards sustainability in healthcare spaces. By nature, hospitals are huge energy users. Due to the age of many of these facilities, bringing in newer technologies is more challenging, but it is encouraging to see that there is interest in having these conversations. Some facilities might not be able to reach full carbon neutrality, but we can help them get to the best point that is feasible.
How did you first learn about Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD)? What is it, exactly and why is it useful?
Miles: CFD is a means of creating a mathematical model to analyze the flow of air and humidity within a certain space. The model also takes into consideration how adjacent spaces, equipment, and people impact and interact with this flow. CFD has been around since the ‘90s, but the math behind it is so complex that for many years it was only used by NASA and aerospace engineers. Over the years, the technology has gotten more affordable and easier to use, and is finally trickling down into the kinds of software that we use today.
The model created helps to illustrate exactly how a space will react under different scenarios and conditions. It can be used internally as a safety check, to confirm that our planned systems will operate as intended, but it can also be a powerful tool for communicating with other project stakeholders who do not have an engineering background. The visual representation helps to illustrate these complex ideas in a digestible way.
At RMF, this technology aligns with our firm’s larger commitment to utilizing real-world empirical data rather than relying on probabilities.
Have you used this in a project before?
Miles: CFD is a time-intensive process and it isn’t right for every situation. My team used it while working on a project for the South Carolina Department of Corrections that involved a heated slab in the building. The piping under it had given out, and we figured out what we needed to do to properly heat the building by using CFD analysis. Primarily I have used CFD as an internal safety check. The Burn Center at MUSC was an exciting project, because it was our first real opportunity to use CFD as a design-driving mechanism.
How did RMF use CFD modeling while working on the Burn Center at Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC)?
Gregory: Surgical procedures differ in regards to temperature and humidity requirements. Taking into consideration the numerous staff and imaging equipment also necessary for procedures, maintaining these required temperature and humidity levels can become challenging. The environmental conditions needed to treat patients with significant burn injuries can go beyond the typical standards (burn units may require temperatures of close to 100°F) and therefore we needed more than simple calculations to adequately ensure the space would function as the users expect.
In this case, using CFD helped us to confirm our proposed design approach and also visually show the client the available options to help them make educated decisions. Our highest priority was reducing uncertainty and ensuring patient safety and infection control. It was so helpful for all parties to have this extra level of assurance that our proposed systems would achieve the necessary environmental conditions.
What other types of projects might benefit from the use of CFD? How can this technology be applied elsewhere?
Miles: CFD isn’t something we would use for every project. Most projects we take on have enough precedent that we know the “dos” and “don’ts.” For example, air flow rules are already generally established for standard laboratories and there would be no need to bring in more complex and time-consuming data modeling. CFD comes into play when we are working on an atypical or even unprecedented project. I can see possible applications for the fire protection industry or rare artifacts storage. It could also be quite valuable in developing passive house strategies.
As architects continue to push the envelope of what they want buildings to look like, we will continue to see more challenging, unusually-shaped spaces that require an extra layer of certainty to ensure that our engineering designs will function as intended.
Gregory: I believe the healthcare industry will continue to be the most open to doing these kinds of studies, as controlling environmental factors is so critical in spaces such as hospitals that are caring for vulnerable populations.
Anything else you’d like to note?
Miles: Most of all, we want people to understand that CFD is a viable option in these tougher scenarios without pre-determined guidelines to fall back on. This technology isn’t just a gimmick, but a relevant and worthwhile tool for those looking to push the envelope of what is possible.