10/20/22 Master of Building Science Alumni Spotlight: Amina Jambo ‘17, Senior Design Researcher at IDEO
Amina Jambo, a 2017 graduate of the USC School of Architecture’s Master of Building Science program is a thoughtful designer, researcher, and scientist with over ten years of experience working alongside multidisciplinary teams to deliver simple, elegant, and evidence-based design solutions. She currently serves as a senior design researcher for IDEO.
Amina specializes in the use of creative and analytical thinking to design functional environments for optimal psychological and productive performance.
Creative, collaborative, practical, and enthusiastic, Amina uses human-centered and iterative design strategies to generate delightful and innovative systems which increase habitability of extreme environments. Her work operates at the crossroads of architecture, physical science, and engineering.
"Research is central to my design ethos, and I understand the value and importance of keeping humans at the center of design, not simply letting form drive the process."
Q: Please describe your thesis project. What motivated you to select the topic? How did it impact your experience as a professional?
My thesis explored applications of thermobimetal to façade design as a means of developing responsive architecture. This was largely pioneered by Doris Sung, USC School of Architecture’s director of undergraduate architecture programs and associate professor. My thesis looked at modeling the behavior of a very small section of theoretical building outfitted with thermobimetal and understanding how it reacts during different times of the year.
I was very interested in smart and adaptive architecture in general, which is what led me to pursue thermobimetal applications as a thesis topic. I was considering things like Achim Menges’ wooden, expansive, responsive structure but Professor Sung was already doing that kind of work and it was really interesting to see that it was made of metal.
I didn't come into the Building Science program with an interest in that. Originally, I intended to do something in the realm of disaster relief housing and climate sensitive architecture.
In terms of the impact it had on me post-graduation, I actually didn't end up doing too much work directly related to responsive materials and their use in architecture. I did, however, work for the firm Atelier Ten that does sustainable design more generally, and is very well squared in the realm of building science. Atelier Ten has been paving the way for carbon quantification in terms of thinking about grid carbon versus how carbon emissions are calculated based on the grid usage.
While there, I worked on a wide variety of projects, from small office buildings to educational centers to an estuary. Some of the work varied in terms of what aspects of the project I focused on. Some of it was more explicitly visualizing energy results of energy models for a building, while other aspects were very focused on LEED, WELL and the non-technical, human dimensions of performance. I found that having had experience with a lot of the different energy modeling programs was very helpful in grounding my understanding of exactly what the energy modelers at the firm were doing and how to communicate the results in terms of what is most important to the client.
Q: Can you share your career path with us and what led to you working at IDEO? Tell us about the design research approach and highlight how research has informed design decision making.
The main thesis behind design thinking and design research is the idea that the people you're designing for understand their needs better than you can. It makes a lot of sense when you're designing something for another person, to invite them into the process and co-design with them to learn exactly about their needs and what it is they think they need. That provides a clearer picture of the problem you're trying to solve.
Research at IDEO looks like speaking to people - usually it's a smaller handful of people - but you're really going deep and observing what they do. It involves getting really close to the problem at hand, but also being open enough to draw in inspiration from disparate fields. The way that the teams are set up is also very interesting. IDEO works in small, but highly multidisciplinary teams, and plays to the strengths of each member of your team to build a more robust picture of the design challenge and create what that problem is and how to solve it from different angles.
In sciences and engineering, you start to see that it’s the data that tells the story. But I think there's something very interesting about the types of stories that you can tell with data and what insights you’re drawing from within that data. There's a lot of value in not only collecting, but starting to visualize and use the data to build a more complete picture of exactly the problem you're trying to solve for. Because at the end of the day, your work is an interpretation of that data, uncovering the story behind it, and contextualizing it.
Q: What makes the Master of Building Science program so unique is the emphasis on the experience of end-users, and particularly, experiences which are subjective. Can you discuss your approach to incorporating end-user experience into the design process and the methods or techniques that deal with the subjective nature of human experience?
A big part of the IDEO process is iterative; you're constantly testing things with people to understand how they think they want to use it, and how it works. And that's almost fundamentally at odds with how buildings are designed. I see that as a limitation of the building design process. It is traditionally somewhat linear and is fairly constrained in terms of how much exploration can take place. That was the reason that it would be difficult for me to find relevant techniques for the MBS program - because of how buildings are currently constructed.
The iterative learning process is largely absent from the conventional project lifecycle. There's a lot of emphasis on the delivery process of buildings and then there's this whole missing piece of end-user testing. Post occupancy evaluation (POE) is the only tool that I can think of within the built environment that starts to hint at that iterative process.
Q: Let’s touch upon the work you have done as a Habitability Scientist & Designer for Extreme Environments.
Thinking about the work that I have done to date, my interests, and the services that I can offer given my experience, the titles, Habitability Scientist and Designer for Extreme Environments - fit well. They are titles that I have developed for myself that most accurately describe what I do.
Earth is only going to get more extreme over time, and we are already living in extreme environments. We've seen it already with the current COVID-19 pandemic: this is not the last one. Extreme events are just going to continue to occur with increasing frequency. So this kind of work is definitely necessary to think about especially as we prepare for the future, which sounds kind of scary. Hopefully we're able to avoid a very terrible future.
I was fortunate enough to make some connections through the Mars City Design competition that I entered. I won first place in the artificial intelligence division and then through that made connections at NASA. Through that, I got a lot of exposure to NASA scientists and started doing some work with them that is ongoing.
Q: What do you think are the most important skills, knowledge, educational experiences and more that MBS students should be getting in the program?
I think the most important lessons to be learned are about connection between educational content and real-world applications and finding ways to spark conversations around the future of what is possible and changes that need to happen.
By the MBS program’s very nature, being building science focused, there is a very strong bent towards sustainability and opportunities to learn deeply about the evolving nature of architecture and new technologies within that sphere.
There was a course that I took that explored the history of San Francisco and how San Francisco came to be the way it is today (astronomical housing prices, the city’s demographic make-up, the impacts of its geological constraints, etc.). The discussions that I had in that course were some of the most inspiring ones I had during the program. Based on that model, perhaps some of these discussions could start small: a roundtable evening conversation.
There needs to be discussions and connections to what is happening outside of the classroom walls. There are so many opportunities for application, even just outside USC's walls, that can inspire action and perhaps spark conversations around the future of what is possible. And students can even start using the skills that they're gaining now to effect change.