NJIT Ph.D. Candidate Wins Graduate Student Award From NJ Inventors Hall of Fame

Ph.D. candidate Ha Pham wins a Graduate Student Award from the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame for co-inventing a concealed fastener window wall assembly. He began his studies at NJIT in 2005, after winning a full scholarship from the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training to attend graduate school abroad.

The mere mention of Ha Pham’s name elicits a chorus of praise loud enough to fill a concert hall.

“Ha is a man of many talents and skills,” says College of Architecture and Design (CoAD) professor Karen A. Franck, who chairs Pham’s dissertation committee and serves as his academic advisor. “He is a thoughtful designer, an excellent teacher and a dedicated and insightful researcher.”

Pham’s CV is bursting at the seams with honors and accolades. Amid his unconventional design background and research interests—from the use of building information modeling for design integration and life cycle assessment to the practice of digital mapping and pedagogy—are a litany of high commendations and jobs at reputable architecture firms in Vietnam, where he graduated with a B.A. in architecture from the National University of Civil Engineering.

“He’s a 21st century renaissance man,” gushes CoAD associate professor Darius Sollohub, who collaborated with Pham to co-invent a concealed fastener window wall assembly for which Pham recently won a Graduate Student Award from the New Jersey Hall of Fame (NJIHoF).

“He does a lot of different things really, really well,” he continues. “He knows about technical systems, he knows about urban planning, and he knows enough about urban theory to investigate the fine print inside the laws that will give access to a waterfront. And, honestly, he’s an all-around nice guy. They don’t get much better than Ha.”

Window of Opportunity

In 2009, when Pham entered the Joint Ph.D. Program in Urban Systems, he and Sollohub began working on a curtain wall, which incorporates structural mullions as an internal part of the window wall panels instead of there being an exposed external element of the structure.

“We were able to combine the frame and the glass by putting two glass panels together, enabling them to hold themselves together,” explains Sollohub. “Imagine each of the windows as a brick wall and instead of there being mortar in between the brick, there’s a little mechanism that grips them together and suddenly you have a unified pane of glass.”

The structural mullions are sandwiched between the window glazing in an insulated air chamber, acting as a thermal barrier for the structure and protecting the mullions from the environment. Connected air chambers between the cavities allow for the transmission of gases between panels to facilitate heat transfer as well as produce diverse visual effects, such as change in color or transparency on demand, resulting in an aesthetically pleasing façade.

According to Sollohub, the thickness of the entire glass unit provides energy efficiency and will help resist the gale force winds of a hurricane. The invention, he says, “liberates the inside of glass and opens up a plethora of opportunities for sustainable applications.”

The cavity can also accommodate remote controlled PV panels, light shelves and louvers, all protected from misuse and the environment. “This came to be based on Darius’s experience working on design and my experience working in the field,” says Pham. “And because I was teaching a course on environmental control systems at the time, all the dots connected.”

With the help of NJIT’s Office of Research and Development and the Patents & Licensing Administration, the window wall has been filed for U.S. patent protection and is in pending status.

“It was an incredible time to pursue an adventure, something innovative and theoretical. We both had this idea and time to work on it, so we worked it out together,” says Sollohub.

Coming to America

In 2003, Pham won a full scholarship from the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training to attend graduate school abroad, changing the course of his professional life and landing Pham a coveted seat at one of the top polytechnic schools in the U.S.

“I chose NJIT because it was among the very few schools in the Northeast that offered an accredited master’s degree in architecture back then, which is a great stepping stone toward an architecture license,” says Pham, whose interest in U.S. architecture was piqued by the work of icons Louis Sullivan, Frank L. Wright and Richard Meier.

Though he applied to several schools around the country, Pham decided early on to attend NJIT, which allowed him to start in the spring semester of 2005. “I was so ready to go,” he recalls. “If I had to wait for the fall, I might have gotten stuck in another project and delayed my departure. The construction market in Vietnam was booming back then.”

On top of the full scholarship he received from the Vietnamese Ministry of Education, NJIT also offered Pham a teaching assistantship and a Provost Fellowship. “I had a chance to teach, which I have developed a great interest and passion for, and I received extra financial support,” he says. “Who can beat that?”

After earning a M.Arch. and an M.S. in infrastructure planning in 2007, Pham landed a position at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm responsible for reviving the Manhattan skyline with the tallest skyscraper in the western hemisphere, One World One Trade Center. There, he developed master plans, layouts and interior and exterior designs and worked on sports-centric ventures, like the New York Jets football training facility in Florham Park.

But when the financial crisis peaked in 2008, work slowed down, so he decided to return to NJIT to earn a Ph.D.

The Doctor is (almost) in

Currently, Pham is completing what Franck assures will be an outstanding dissertation on a very interesting and under-researched topic: “Negotiating Public Access to Urban Waterfronts: The Case of the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway,” with a focus on the negotiations that have shaped public accessibility (and inaccessibility) to the urban waterfront and the development of five large segments of the walkway adjacent to Independence Harbor.

“I’m looking to finish the writing and defend my dissertation this semester. I’m under a lot of deadlines,” says Pham by phone from Northern California, where he lives with his wife and children.

He enjoys living in the Bay Area but misses the spirit and vigor that thrives back east on the NJIT campus, a place he considers a second home—and it’s easy to see why he’s a little homesick.

NJIT is where he became an expert in computer rendering and animation; worked his way up from a teaching assistant to a course instructor, design critic and lecturer (Pham won an Excellence in Innovative Teaching Award in 2013); served as a program accreditation specialist and president and founding member of the university’s badminton club; collaborated with a professor to invent a window wall assembly; and, of course, it’s where he’ll graduate with a Ph.D. in urban systems.

“He has taken full advantage of the degree programs NJIT and CoAD offers,” says Franck, who attended the NJIHoF awards dinner on Pham’s behalf to pick up the Graduate Student Award. “It has been very rewarding to work with him.”

The feelings of admiration are mutual.

“The faculty offered me lots of support and understanding when I went through the ‘back to school’ struggles with a baby on the way,” he remembers. “So, I’ll always feel attached and indebted to NJIT.”

Eager to start the next phase of what has already been an impressive career, Pham is eyeing teaching opportunities at universities on both the east and west coast. “But I would also love to come back to the practice field and design high-rises and big buildings in New York City,” he says. “I’ll see how it goes.”

If there’s one thing that’s clear from chatting with Pham, it’s how grateful he is for the opportunities NJIT has given to him. He’s passionate about his work and excited about what the future holds. He’s also proof that when one door closes, you don’t have to wait for a window to open—you can invent one, instead.

By Shydale James
sjames@njit.edu