The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Building Bridges

Engineering solutions for sustainable infrastructure
  • Engineers Sergio Breña (left) and Scott Civjan at the new testing facility

The new Brack structural testing facility will be put to use in the campus's ongoing work with the Massachusetts and Vermont Departments of Transportation.

The safety of buildings, bridges and highways is easy to take for granted, but behind-the-scenes research conducted by engineers Sergio Breña, Scott Civjan, and colleagues ensures that infrastructure is built to weather harsh conditions and stand the test of time. Now with the new Robert B. Brack Structural Testing Facility, the UMass Amherst Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is expanding that research capacity to include large-scale infrastructure components.

Built over the course of just six months, the facility will generate new research opportunities and attract top-notch students. The UMass Amherst Office for Research and Engagement got the ball rolling with seed funding, and then some 64 private and industry-level donors stepped in to cover most of the construction costs—the department received overwhelming support from alumni.

“It snowballed very quickly,” says Breña.

The facility boasts a high lifting capacity, which enables testing of full-size structural elements such as beams and girders. The floor, which is the most important part of the building, is comprised of 55 tie-down locations—each with the capacity to load up to 200,000 pounds in multiple configurations. The facility is also equipped with a crane that can lift up to 60,000 pounds.

The new facility will enable Breña and Civjan (pictured left to right above) to work on larger projects, including research involving sustainable buildings and bridge components. They have been preparing for these large projects by experimenting with new materials and methods, testing their endurance and strength. For example, they have found carbon fiber to be a useful, easy-to-use material for bridge and structure repair. Also, the team has investigated the corrosive properties of several different concrete admixtures. One admixture, which is also an award-winning ‘green’ product, was found to work most effectively. The team’s research serves to justify the use of the admixture, as it proves the material is both environmentally friendly and enduring.

“The research that was done here is really what showed that it worked long-term and that it performed the way they were expecting it to,” says Civjan.

The facility will be put to use in their ongoing work with the Massachusetts and Vermont Departments of Transportation. Breña, Civjan and colleagues are helping both states repair and build bridges more efficiently. Currently, they are monitoring three bridges in each state—each with a boundary-pushing design aspect to be studied with particular care. They explain that the more testing that can be done in the facility, the more innovative each state can be in designing bridges and orchestrating repairs. On a national level, the timeframe for construction is also a huge factor. Bridge repairs can take months and be extremely costly; efficient and innovative structural methods can ease traffic interruptions, save money and showcase sustainable designs.

“All these bridges…they follow from a federal push for accelerated bridge construction to minimize disruption while improving durability,” says Civjan.

Even if a new and cheaper method of bridge construction is identified, it must go through an intensely stringent process of approval as the safety of the community is on the line. Each new structural solution that Breña, Civjan and the team can design goes a long way. According to Breña and Civjan, the research they are conducting for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has already yielded significant savings. As for Vermont, the state has saved the $650,000 they paid out for the research through increased efficiencies. 

With the new testing facility, Breña and Civjan envision greatly expanded research opportunities. They also can show students how to use analytical modeling to uncover failure mechanisms that need to be addressed within a structural design and how to conduct materials testing—skills highly valued by potential employers.

The new facility takes the name of UMass Amherst alum Robert Brack—a 1960 graduate of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. Brack, former owner and chairman of the board of the Barker Steel Company, donated a substantial amount to the construction of the new testing site and played a lead role in fundraising efforts. With an eye on the deteriorating highway infrastructure in the Northeast, the new facility will be a place for engineering students to reinforce skills learned in the classroom as they conduct research to develop the next generation of infrastructure solutions.

Amanda Drane '12