Looking up

Posted on 10. Dec, 2012 by in Academic Departments, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Features, Gift Report, Issues, People, Research

Prestigious professorship is the impetus for a structural engineering renaissance at UW-Madison

In our built environment, it seems even the sky’s not the limit.

Over the past eight years, countries in the Middle East and Asia have completed the world’s five tallest skyscrapers. At 163 floors and 2,171 feet tall, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai holds the current world record, towering over the next tallest building—the Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel in Mecca, Saudi Arabia—by 43 floors and a whopping 746 feet. Here in the United States, when One World Trade Center is finished in 2013, it will become the third tallest building in the world, and the tallest building outside of the Middle East.

Throughout history, structural engineers have played crucial roles in designing and constructing everything from bridges to buildings in every size, shape and location imaginable. And today, the dependability and safety inherent in each of those structures is a direct result of decades of sophisticated structural and materials research.

At UW-Madison, such research dates to the early 1900s and traces a timeline that includes pioneering structural engineering researchers, educators and authors Frederick Turneaure, Edward Maurer, Owen Withey, Kurt Wendt, George Washa, John Johnson, Charles Salmon, Alain Peyrot and C.K. Wang.

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professors Steven Cramer, Michael Oliva and José Pincheira have carried on their legacy, conducting both experimental and computational research that, for example, could lead to innovative, sustainable designs or improve the safety of new or existing structures.

Yet, it’s difficult to test the structural integrity of large-scale structures like bridges or skyscrapers in a one-story laboratory. “The lab was opened in 1984, when I joined the UW,” says Cramer, of the Wisconsin Structures and Materials Testing Laboratory on the first floor of Engineering Hall. “But the world has advanced. Despite all of our computing power, we’re still not able to mimic reality completely. Remodeling the lab allows us to explore bigger and more meaningful questions for structures that are built today.”

C.K. Wang and Gustavo Parra-Montesinos

C.K. Wang and Gustavo Parra-Montesinos.

And that is where Gustavo Parra-Montesinos comes in. “Gustavo builds on the strengths of the people who are already here,” says Cramer. “He’s an experimentalist and heavily invested in the structures laboratory.”

After 12 years on the engineering faculty at the University of Michigan, Parra-Montesinos joined the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in summer 2012. An earthquake engineer and international expert in reinforced concrete and composite steel-concrete structures, Parra-Montesinos is the first UW-Madison C.K. Wang Professor of Structural Engineering. “He brings his expertise to the classroom and to research,” says Cramer. “He adds another dimension—and there’s a synergy that’s created when a new person comes in. He’s the center point of that synergy. The impetus for renewing the structures laboratory is his arrival. The flowers are starting to sprout around where he walks.”

Committed to continuing the college’s legacy of excellence in structural engineering research and education, Wang established the professorship fund a decade ago with a lead gift of $500,000. “For me, it’s a great honor,” says Parra-Montesinos, about holding a professorship with Wang’s name. “I didn’t know him personally, but I did know of him and his work, because I had several of his books. And I’m very proud of having this position.”

Relatively early in his career, Parra-Montesinos has garnered high honors in his profession. A fellow of the American Concrete Institute, he received the organization’s 2012 Wason Medal for Most Meritorious Paper and the 2011 Chester Paul Seiss Award for Excellence in Structural Research. He earned the Walter L. Huber Research Prize in 2010 from the American Society of Civil Engineers and was an Engineering News Record top-25 newsmaker of 2010, among other awards.

Parra-Montesinos was born in Caracas, Venezuela, to parents who both are civil engineers. Although structures and construction fascinated him since his childhood, Parra-Montesinos also is a talented pianist who almost pursued a career in music.

Engineering prevailed, however, and Parra-Montesinos became a fifth-generation college graduate when he earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1994 from the Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas. After working shortly as a practicing engineer, he enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where he received master’s (1997) and PhD (2000) degrees in civil engineering.

After he earned his PhD, Parra-Montesinos joined the Michigan faculty as an assistant professor. Initially, he continued his PhD research on composite structures that combine structural steel members and reinforced concrete members. Then, however, he shifted his focus to fiber-reinforced concrete, which is made from tiny fibers mixed with concrete. “You actually improve the mechanical properties of the concrete by adding fibers,” he says. “The idea is that those fibers could take some of the role that those reinforcing bars play in the structure, and by doing that, you could come up with a simpler design, in the form of fewer reinforcing bars, which in the end could be more economical and easier to build.”

For more than a decade, Parra-Montesinos has studied the structural applications of fiber-reinforced concrete, particularly for improving the behavior of structures during earthquakes. For example, in areas that experience strong earthquakes, medium- and high-rise buildings tend to rely on massive walls made of reinforced concrete for earthquake resistance. “These walls often impose limitations in terms of space usage,” he says. “So what happens is that you have to pierce the walls to put holes in for doors and windows and things like that. And the result created by these openings is a series of walls connected by short horizontal elements, typically referred to as ‘link’ or ‘coupling’ beams.”

Those coupling beams are subject to very large stresses and deformations during a strong earthquake, and as a result, require a complex, intertwined arrangement of heavy reinforcing bars to ensure they don’t fail. Fiber-reinforced concrete can simplify the reinforcement in coupling beams. Parra-Montesinos has conducted research both at the member level and at the systems level to study the seismic behavior of fiber-reinforced concrete coupling beams and the interactions between those coupling beams and the walls. “We came up with a design where basically you either don’t need any diagonal steel, or you need no more than a third of what is required by the building code,” he says. “And you need much less of the transverse reinforcements used to maintain the integrity of the concrete during an earthquake.”

In a large-capacity laboratory at the University of Michigan, Parra-Montesinos, his colleague James K. Wight, and their students extensively tested their design, subjecting it to (among other tests) the same kinds of deformations it would experience in an earthquake. Now, a 24-story building that incorporates the simpler, more cost-effective design currently is under construction on the West Coast.

Structures faculty

From left: Professors Steve Cramer, Gustavo Parra-Montesinos, Mike Oliva and José Pincheira. Photo: Mark Riechers.

Thanks in part to funding from the C.K. Wang professorship, Parra-Montesinos hopes to conduct studies that will expand his research program at UW-Madison. Among those new areas is developing new designs for precast segmental tunnel linings by incorporating the latest advances in fiber-reinforced concrete. It’s research that requires physical testing and will benefit from an expanded structures laboratory.

The opportunity to help shape structural engineering research at UW-Madison was among the reasons Parra-Montesinos decided to leave Ann Arbor, a city he liked, and the University of Michigan faculty, a job he enjoyed. “I was always told that Madison is a gorgeous, great town,” he says. “The university is a great school. It has expertise in a very wide variety of areas and a hard-to-find intellectual diversity. I liked that there was an interest in building up the structural engineering group—basically, the realization that you need to have a strong structures group as a component of a successful department. There are very good faculty in the department and I knew them from some of my work. And the university is showing through renovation of the lab that it really wants to move the structures group forward.”

In the long run, that effort will increase the national visibility of the UW-Madison structural engineering educational and research programs. It also will enhance the university’s ability to attract top-quality students and to partner with industry on research not currently possible. “The current structures lab has fairly limited capabilities, partly because space-wise, it’s small, not only in terms of area, but also height,” says Parra-Montesinos. “We are very restricted in the testing we can do—and therefore, the type of research we can do. Many universities have big structures labs. But a lab without good research doesn’t take you too far.”

While there is some funding through the Wang professorship for improving the Wisconsin Structures and Materials Testing Laboratory, the college is seeking additional gifts to support the renovation. Plans for the facility call for expanding into a vacant exterior area of Engineering Hall, adjacent to the existing structures laboratory. That new, flexible multistory space will enable large-scale testing—for example, bridge girders, full-size building components, and segments of tunnels—and free up space and equipment in the existing lab for more efficient research that requires only small-scale testing.

The upgraded laboratory also will require new instrumentation and equipment with expanded capabilities. Already, with funding from his professorship, Parra-Montesinos has purchased a new data-acquisition system and an infrared-based system that enables researchers to noninvasively measure deformations in structures.

One room in the UW-Madison structures lab

A section of the UW-Madison structures laboratory. Photo: Renee Meiller

While Parra-Montesinos is an accomplished researcher whose career is on an upward trajectory, he also places high value on the university’s educational mission. “The structures group is in need,” he says. “We are here because of the students—and I never forget that.”

Cramer says Parra-Montesinos’ energy will have a multiplying effect for the entire structures program. “He is a catalyst,” says Cramer. “You bring something in and it creates something greater than its own self, because it creates reactions. That’s Gustavo. And none of this would have happened without C.K.’s generosity.”

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