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The Voice of the Jackhammer

Photo: Civjan in new lab

Hands-on, hardhats-on, earplugs-in learning: civil engineering faculty member Scott Civjan in the new structures lab.



Even as it nears completion, the structures lab in the Gunness engineering building looks like a construction site. Stacks of steel beams. Metal shavings and concrete footings. Lengths of chain swinging from the ceiling.

     That's exactly how civil engineering prof Scott Civjan wants it to stay. "It's a mess," he sighs, not unhappily. On the day we visit, two graduate students are testing blocks of concrete that look rather small until Civjan points out they weigh a half-ton each. Soon, the sounds of a jackhammer are heard in the lab. It becomes clear: this is not a construction site. It's a deconstruction site.

     This new lab, and the hiring of Civjan himself in 1998, reflect an effort by the College of Engineering to rebuild a program that was allowed to lapse in the mid-'80s. Here, as in many Northeast engineering schools, the downscale mirrored the slump in the economy. Structures engineering, after all, has everything to do with growth with new bridges and buildings, overpasses and roads.

     Until recently, therefore, most research in the field was confined to structural mechanics and analysis - to computer modeling. Civjan's work represents a rejuvenation of the experimental side of structures, the hands-on trials that allow computer models to be tested and refined.

     But "hands-on" comes with quite a price tag. For a large-scale, three-year test, just the materials being tested can cost $20,000 or more. The total for a big test can be as much as $300,000. And that's after the lab's initial setup, which is expected to total $200,000. The burden of this hefty tab was eased by a gift from Barker Steel, a Milford-based firm owned by civil engineering grad Bob Brack '60.

     "We try to help out," says Brack modestly, as though his idea of help were not ten tons of steel beams, bolts, and connectors. Before Brack's donation, the lab was little more than drawings and a whopping amount of Civjan energy.

     A second donation supported literally the lab's foundation. The installation of a three-ton capacity bridge-crane, which makes possible the delicate maneuvering of beams weighing half a ton or more, required a structural analysis of the existing building. The analysis was provided by alumnus Parviz Heravi '75G and professor emeritus Fred Dzialo. On their recommendation, four strengthening columns were installed, and work on the structures lab could begin in earnest.

     The heart of the lab is the load frame, where the large-structures testing takes place. Into this eighteen-foot-long, fourteen-foot-high grid of steel and braces, researchers load their favorite flavor of beam steel, concrete, fiber-reinforced plastic, wood and apply up to 200,000 pounds of force to one or more points.

     How important are such tests? Imagine a building's internal structure, steel beam bolted to steel beam. Can you make the building two stories high? Six stories high? How strong are the bolts, the reinforced concrete footings? How strong are the load-bearing beams being used in the new townhouse complex down the road, or the new off-ramp that leads to the townhouses? On the load frame, says Civjan, "we push on a column until it breaks." That's more pressure than it would ever have on it in practice, he says, and it's "what lets you know how to design against maximum load." The test is the difference between knowing that a structure will hold and hoping that your computer model does.

Civjan's next task is to find funding for the first long-range project. He's reluctant to talk about how many grant proposals he's already written, as if stating the number is a jinx. "We've got more ideas for projects than we'll ever be able to do in this lab," he says. "The problem is getting funded. Let's just say that if I get one long-range grant this year, I'll be happy." It's an uphill battle for him: he's a young faculty member, not yet widely recognized in his field; he's at a university with a fledgling experimental structures program and a laboratory not yet completed. "It'll be easier when we're up and running," he says.

     Research isn't the only goal of the structures lab. As evidenced by those jack-hammering students, it's a teaching lab as well. A class that's been testing beam sections can now test entire twenty-foot beams, Civjan says, and "watch instead of being told what will happen to them." That's important to Civjan as a teacher, and it's important to Brack, who remembers exactly that aspect of his education. "UMass gave me so much," he says. "It was very hands-on. You don't forget that."

     The first short-term project using the load frame is almost ready to be tested. First up will be graduate student Annapurna Gorthy's computer model of a seismic connection detail. "She's doing the analysis without the beams," Civjan says. "Then we'll test five beams, ten beams, compare it to her model and then we can tweak that model to do hundreds of tests." Many assumptions are made in computer modeling, and each experimental test, each 200,000 pounds of force, eliminates some of those assumptions, making for safer bridges and buildings.

     Under that much force, the beams sometimes "completely deform like spaghetti," says Civjan, hands and fingers twisting in emulation. And sometimes, the beams fail.

     When the beams fail, do they crack?

      "Usually." There is the hint of a grin.

      Do you look forward to that sound?

      "Yes indeed." He breaks into a full-fledged smile. "That's my favorite part."

– Karen Skolfield '98 G

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