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A Working Lab, Before the Building Is Complete

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November 18, 2004

When a new facility is being built on a university campus, faculty and students usually have to wait until construction is completed to reap educational benefits. Not so with the McCormick School’s new Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center. Richard Finno, professor of civil and environmental engineering, has — with the help of grants from the National Science Foundation and Northwestern’s Infrastructure Technology Institute — transformed the construction site into a working laboratory for graduate and undergraduate students who are interested in his ongoing research project, “Predicting, Monitoring, and Controlling Ground Movement Due to Excavation.”

When excavating a new construction site, contractors create temporary supports to prevent soil movement, which could cause damage to nearby structures. Even when careful calculations are used to predict such movement, unexpected problems can occur. The result can be damage to or destruction of surrounding buildings and utilities. In the case of the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center site, one such structure is the Technological Institute.

Finno’s research project focuses on collecting continuous real-time information about the impact of construction on the terrain around the site, including soil movements surrounding the excavation and deformations of the walls of the Technological Institute. “On a typical project, these data are measured,” Finno explains. “However, the results are not made available in a timely fashion to enable contractors to make appropriate changes when necessary. This can result in costly damage to structures and utilities, particularly in urban areas.”

Finno and his team are developing sensors and information technology devices for real-time data monitoring. They are also creating sophisticated mathematical models to process data immediately, enabling designers and engineers to adjust a project’s design quickly when necessary — even from a remote location. “Using these models, we are able to simulate the construction process — how the resulting ground movements impact everything in the surrounding environment,” says Finno. “As a result, we can numerically predict the impact of construction.”

Finno’s work relies on knowledge from a number of disciplines, including geotechnical engineering, structural engineering, information technology, and sensor technology. The project has helped students gain valuable real-world experience. “Projects of this scale are hard to visualize,” Finno contends. “Having real-world experience gives students an appreciation for why we design things the way we do.” Kate Sylvester (civil and environmental engineering ’04) was able to work on the project thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation. “It was a great experience,” she says. “I’m getting ready to graduate in December, and what I’ve learned this summer will help me figure out what’s next.”

The irony, of course, is that once construction is completed at the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, Finno will lose his lab. “Our data indicate that the excavation has not adversely affected the Technological Institute. Construction is proceeding apace such that the building should be completed on time,” Finno says. The project is slated for completion in May 2005.

—Jennifer Lawrence