What brought Winifred Elysse Newman to Clemson University?

“Opportunity,” she said.

Newman joined the faculty of the School of Architecture in August as the Homer Curtis Mickel and Leola Carter Mickel Endowed Chair in Architecture. The Mickel Chair was created to support the research of a distinguished scholar who would also be engaged in teaching.

This is a photo of Clemson University professor Winifred Elysse Newman.

Winifred Elysse Newman leads Clemson University researchers in solving architectural problems of today and tomorrow. Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

“I think Clemson is growing and has made a real commitment to a transformative education model,” Newman said. “The University is really thinking about how we can adapt and adjust to the changing workforce and what is needed for every student at every level. I was really excited and energized by that.”

Newman is a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning. She came to Clemson from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where she was the head of the department of architecture in its Fay Jones School of Architecture.

Her research centers on designing responsive or “smart” homes to improve the quality of life for the elderly and people living with disabilities. “We want to enable people to maintain their lifestyles in their homes, where they’re happier,” Newman said.

At Clemson, Newman also serves as director of an institute with a central aim: to make the built environment work for all of us through applied research.

“Where do we spend most of our money? Buildings,” Newman said. “Cities are the biggest thing we make as human beings, and for many people the most money they’ll spend in their lives will be on their home and the land associated with it.”

Sustainability and resiliency

Newman leads a team of specialized scholars at the Institute for Intelligent Materials, Systems and Environments, which grapples with real-world architectural issues of today and tomorrow.

One professor, Carlos Barrios Kleiss, is designing building materials that can be reused, not just recycled. Two others, Dan Harding and Dustin Albright, are continuing to develop a process called sim[PLY], a quick, DIY process for building structures without nails or screws. And Hala Nassar and Robert Hewitt of Clemson are working with Duke researchers to design drone-deterring landscapes.

The institute is particularly focused on issues in the built environment such as sustainability and resiliency.

“The challenge is to make things that are changeable over time,” she said. “How can I augment a building or landscape, change it so it can respond to a use in 30 years?”

Newman and architecture students recently worked with a man in his 40s who had a degenerative muscular disease that made certain tasks, including cooking, difficult. She said the students designed countertops that were lower, but not obvious to someone who would not have needed the modification.

Newman also explores solutions for those experiencing cognitive difficulties in her research at the intersection of architecture and neuroscience.

For example, one concern for Alzheimer’s patients is getting burned by a stove at home. Newman said she can add sensors to clothing. As the patient approaches the stove, the sensors would activate and put pressure on the body, alerting the patient to danger.

“I work with occupational therapists, computer scientists, engineers, other architects and cognitive psychologists to understand how we can use the environment to help you to perform tasks that you might not have been able to perform because of cognitive and physical changes,” she said.

Another institute project pairs occupational therapists and Clemson architecture students. At a retirement community near Atlanta, they have been analyzing how homes could be improved to assist those with cognitive challenges. Their first step is examining what in the home has become more difficult to navigate.

“We have to learn to be resilient, which includes a broader understanding of what we call sustainability,” Newman said. “One goal is to sustain, to make things have longevity; the other challenge is to make things that are changeable over time.”

Design innovation is particularly important as the U.S. population ages, she said.

“By 2050, there will be fewer people of working age than people who are not working, so the resiliency that we’re trying to build in the system is to enable people who are not in the working population to maintain their lifestyles and their homes,” Newman said. “If I can keep you at home, you’re not only happier but the impact on our health care system is tremendous.”

Beginning as a pianist

Despite studying architecture at Harvard and occupying high-profile positions as a professor of architecture in academia, Newman’s earliest ambition was to become a classical pianist.

Newman was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Her parents moved the family to Mexico when she was 18 months old, and her first languages were English and Spanish. After seven years there, they moved to San Antonio, Texas.

Later, at the University of Texas at Austin, Newman would pursue a degree in music theory and composition while studying classical piano.

In a few years, however, she felt she needed a change – but wasn’t sure what that change should be.

“Friends said, ‘You’re always making things and drawing, why don’t you look at architecture? It had never crossed my mind, but I took some courses and thought, ‘This is fantastic.’”

Newman went on to receive two undergraduate degrees from the University of Texas and her Ph.D., Master of Philosophy and Master of Architecture from Harvard.

In addition to her work in academia, Newman co-owns FieldOffice, LLC with her husband, architect Michael Repovich.

At UT Austin, Newman studied with Natalie Dubois, the first woman to graduate from Columbia University with an architecture degree in the 1920s.

“She was an inspiration,” Newman said. “There are so many buildings in New York for which Natalie was the lead designer. There weren’t that many role models for young woman in architecture. It does matter when you see people who look like you and are like you. You think, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”

Noting that architecture is still “a gentleman’s club,” Newman herself strives to serve as a role model, particularly for women in architecture.

“That would really be a gift to me as an educator if young women thought that working with me was significant to them,” Newman said. “I think equity helps everyone; recognizing everyone’s contribution means we are using our collective human potential.”

Newman’s endowed chair is primarily geared toward research, but she loves to teach as well. Newman not only works with graduate students but plans to teach freshman and sophomore classes by next fall. “I’d like to be in contact with the students who are coming in and see what their seeing,” she said. “In order to build the next generation, I think it’s really critical that faculty reach out to freshmen and sophomores.”

Newman has reached out beyond the classroom as well, volunteering with the Girl Scouts in a program that sends STEM professionals into elementary schools.

“I absolutely think you have to pay it forward,” Newman said.