Student Profile: Pierre Fuller S.M. 2009

Pierre Fuller
S.M. 2009, CEE Doctoral Student

In 2001, 18-year-old Pierre Fuller of Flint, Mich., followed his long-held dream of becoming an architect by enrolling in the architecture program at Michigan’s Lawrence Technological University. He ended up getting two degrees — architecture and civil engineering — and graduating magna cum laude. Then, inspired by research he did while working at an engineering firm during college, his interests turned to building-information modeling technology and graduate school at MIT. He’s considering going to law school after he gets his Ph.D. This winter, Fuller, now 27, was one of two students invited to give a talk at MIT’s 37th Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

What was the topic of your speech at MIT’s MLK celebration?
Fuller: I based it on the biblical story of Nehemiah, who enlisted the help of an entire community to rebuild a protective wall around the city by getting each family to rebuild the wall in front of their home. As in the story of Nehemiah, I attribute my success of getting to where I am now to the collective influence of my mother, who was a single mother; my barber Sunny, who was influential when I was a youngster in keeping me out of trouble; and to my grandmother. My mother guided me, my grandmother taught me humility and Sunny kept me out of trouble. Each person laid a brick and protected me when I was weak. I used a quote from Dr. King about us inheriting a world house in which we all have to learn to live together in peace. I believe what is required for us to inherit Dr. King’s “world house” is that we have humility; that we don’t try to be the saviors of the world individually.

You began in architecture, then added civil engineering. Why?
Fuller: I had always enjoyed drawing and wanted to be a cartoonist, but in middle school I was introduced to computer drafting software and by the time I hit high school, I knew I wanted to be an architect. I took drafting classes my first two years in high school and then architectural drafting classes at a technical school nearby and got a job at a civil engineering firm doing drafting my senior year. I worked there summers during college and this led me to civil engineering. Then I decided to be a land developer; it would be a good investment strategy and I could do the engineering and the architecture. But as I came out of my undergrad degree, I started to move toward structural engineering — designing a building and also designing the structure. My last year of undergrad, I worked for a structural engineering firm. I got interested in building-information modeling technology when the firm I was working for asked me to find out how they could incorporate it into their business. So I researched the software, wrote a report, figured out the one that was best for our business, and eventually implemented it and trained staff on it.

What did you find particularly interesting about building information modeling technology?
Fuller: It brought together my two worlds; it was a piece of software that allows you to model the architecture and the structural engineering and have a virtual representation of the building. When I came to MIT, I was fresh out of that experience and I really wanted to do something with it. I thought, if we have such a complete representation of the building to hand over to the client — a fully three-dimensional model — let’s make that model live. If we take all the information that’s produced by a working, completed building and connect it by sensors back to that model, it can tell us in real time what’s happening in the building. Instead of having to walk through your building physically, you can walk through it virtually and be able to see, for instance, the pressure in a pipe or the temperature in a room. I took Autodesk Revit, a popular commercial software used by structural engineers, and created a kind of a plug-in that feeds real-time information to the back-end database of Revit. I call it Live-Build. That was my master’s thesis work.

Tell me about your Ph.D. thesis research.
Fuller: I’m developing mobile technology — a cellphone app — that will help with indoor navigation where there’s no GPS access and also help people who perhaps can’t see or are in a wheelchair. When you start helping people navigate indoors, you have the problem of details, like stairs or a very steep ramp. Other navigation systems ignore the small details that are critical to helping people with physical disabilities. My research is funded by Transport for London, so initially I’m focused on the London Underground. But the technology that I am developing should be generally applicable to any type of building and several other relevant problems. We want to build a database of information, possibly by storing the paths people use to navigate a station, capturing photos and using image processing to reconstruct a three-dimensional map of the building. By the time we’re done, we may have a complete picture of the building everyone can use to navigate, whether disabled or not.