UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Gifford “Giff” Albright, the first head of the Department of Architectural Engineering (AE) in Penn State’s College of Engineering, died on Dec. 30, 2020, in State College. He was 89 years old. 

In 1953, Albright became the first graduate of the University’s restructured five-year bachelor of architectural engineering degree program. After earning his master of science in building engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 and serving in the United States Navy Civil Engineering Corps, Albright returned to Penn State as the founding head of the newly re-established AE department in 1962. He held the title until 1983, when he stepped down and continued to serve as a professor until he retired in 1991. 

A black and white portrait of a man in glasses.

“It was as if Gifford Albright could see the future when he was appointed as the first head of AE,” said Sez Atamturktur, Harry and Arlene Schell Professor and current AE department head. “He knew that technology was going to reshape the discipline, and Penn State was going to lead the way.”

Albright specifically envisioned a computer operating system that allowed individuals in different disciplines to quickly converge on the conception and design of a building with the same goal of specific performance criteria. The resulting program, called Project Man-Machine System for the Optimum Design and Construction of Buildings (Project MODCON), also led to the nation’s first course in integrated building systems based on computer applications. 

“Professor Albright pioneered a unique curricular structure that emphasizes systems-of-systems thinking and equips students with the ability to integrate complex, interdependent engineering systems for achieving ultra-high-performance buildings,” said Atamturktur, who, since becoming the first woman to lead the department in 2018, met with Albright regularly to discuss the history of the field, as well as contemporary research interests. “His ideas for convergent architectural engineering education were several decades ahead of their time and are still meaningful and applicable today.” 

Albright’s vision of an educational program that would integrate all building design and construction aspects, expressed through Project MODCON, landed him on the cover of Engineering News Record in 1968. 

“Professor Albright was the cornerstone of what would become one of the top architectural engineering programs in the world,” said Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of Engineering. “Before many people had even personally interacted with a computer, he could see how the technology would revolutionize architectural engineering. More than that, he understood how to prepare students to thrive in an evolving industry.”

Albright’s students agreed. 

“To understand his foresight, you need to look at a presentation he made in the late 1960s about computer-aided design,” said Louis Geschwindner, professor emeritus of architectural engineering and former student of Albright. “The capability to do any of what he was talking about did not yet exist. So, one of the faculty members did the presentation drawings by hand, put a mat around them that looked like the outline of a tube TV and took photographs to make 35mm slides. By today’s standards, it was less than primitive, but it allowed Giff to show others what his thinking was.” 

While many across the country were interested in the potential role computing might have in the building industry, according to Geschwindner, Albright was the one to make it the foundation of an architectural engineering education at Penn State. 

“He built the department from almost nothing,” Geschwindner said. “Giff had a vision. He knew where he wanted the department to go, and he attracted the faculty and students to make it happen.” 

Geschwindner first interacted with Albright in 1967. He sent a letter to Albright asking if the master’s degree he planned to pursue would help him toward his goal of professional certification. 

“His response was quite revealing about him, but I did not know that until much later,” Geschwindner said. “He talked about the processes and the knowledge to be gained while leaving the actual question unanswered. He pointed out there were too many factors that would eventually impact the answer. He left it open.”

Since Albright did not say no, Geschwindner said, he decided to attend Penn State. 

“He was much more likely to give all the possibilities and say, ‘perhaps; it all depends,’ than to say ‘no,’” Geschwindner said. “I spent my entire professional career as a Penn State architectural engineering faculty member, and I owe much of my career to him and the opportunities he gave me. He became a good friend.”

Another such student who Albright nurtured was Moses Ling, now a teaching professor and the undergraduate programs officer in the Department of Architectural Engineering. He first met Albright in 1971, when he was an AE undergraduate student. 

“He taught me the introductory course that I now teach,” Ling said. “He was the first to open my eyes to the world of architectural engineering. Several years after I graduated, he took a chance on me as a young practicing engineering with limited experience and helped me launch my career at Penn State.” 

In the 1970s, Albright led the development of the Building Environmental Analysis Program, a software Ling called the forerunner of many programs used today. 

“His vision of how computer-aided design would impact the profession paved the way for the current digital design practice,” Ling said. “Penn State architectural engineering was keeping pace with IBM, in terms of rolling out operating systems.” 

Joseph Borda, the president and founder of Gulf Landings Corporation, was an undergraduate student in the early 1960s when he met Albright. 

“His lasting impact was visionary — Giff founded a curriculum utilizing developing computer technology for students to integrate complex and diverse engineering systems for building design and construction, putting the Penn State architectural engineering program on the national map,” Borda said. “His vision became the cornerstone for today’s sophisticated building design and technology … meeting the complex changing needs for buildings worldwide, for more than 60 years.” 

Borda remembered that Albright took him aside at the senior thesis party in 1965 and encouraged him to blend his education, talent and spirit. Over his 45-year career, Borda became a master builder and developer, specializing in waterfront communities. He has remained engaged with the University, establishing several endowed scholarships, including one in Albright’s name that helps support graduate students. 

“Sometimes a student becomes blessed with a few special professors who are guiding lights throughout their whole career,” Borda said. “Prof. Giff Albright is on the top of my short list of those I cherish in this regard.”

The College of Engineering’s Department of Architectural Engineering has established a fund in memory of Gifford Albright. Gifts to this fund will be designated for undergraduate student scholarships. For more information, contact Jennifer Dubuque, senior director of development, at [email protected] or 561-654-5268.