Civil Engineering Lab Remodel Expands Research and Testing Capabilities

By Holly Hinson

Casting. Curing. Testing. These three steps are all part of the process that happens at the Dahlem Infrastructure Structural Testing Lab Facility in the basement of the W.S. Speed Building at Speed School of Engineering on the University of Louisville campus.

The newly named Civil Engineering structural lab has been undergoing a months-long renovation and remodel that has upgraded outdated equipment, improved the capacity to cast and test large scale concrete specimens, provided a larger, safer learning environment for students, optimized structural efficiency, and opened the space for more opportunities to collaborate with local companies with testing needs.

The renovation project, possible thanks to a gift from Civil Engineering alumnus Bernard Dahlem and his family, is now approximately 90 percent complete and should be complete by summer 2021, said Dr. Zhihui Sun, Chairperson & Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering. “This enhances our research capacity from theoretical to real application.”

The facility now has a greater ability to test large scale specimens that more closely emulate concrete used in the infrastructure of our community’s sidewalks, buildings, bridges and more. “Instead of using small scale specimens where we just look at the material behavior, we can now look at walls, beams and columns in a full scale,” explained Mark McGinley, Professor and Endowed Chair for Infrastructure Research, Civil & Environmental Engineering, who designed and engineered the improvements to the lab.

With two bigger concrete mixers, civil engineering instructors and students are able to cast more concrete at once. Previously, in order to cast a big beam, concrete had to be mixed multiple times. “Those variations in the mix can impact behavior, unlike in the real world,” said McGinley. “Now, we have a truer idea of what the behaviors will be when we use them in the outside world, or in situ. We can get a better idea of the resiliency and improve efficiency of the process.”

In addition, McGinley designed an enhanced drainage system with two large settling tanks for the concrete mixing to avoid the previous issue of concrete clogging the pipe system when cleaning mixers or other tools.  Physical floor place has also been expanded.

“The old configuration was very crowded,” said Sun, particularly in light of distancing required due to COVID-19. “Now more students can participate in the teaching lab.”

Once concrete is casted, specimens are cured in a 98-100 percent relative humidity environment to ensure maximum strength. The lab’s curing room, originally built in the 1950s, was also reconfigured and updated with stainless steel elements.

Last but not least, the third step, structural analysis testing, has been upgraded with state of the art equipment that can test large scale structural elements along two dimensions, both vertically and laterally, closer to real-life situations, both normal and adverse.

“We have to understand how systems will behave better than we used to, said McGinley. “One of our grand challenges as engineers is how to make infrastructure more resilient. We can’t afford to make it as strong as it needs to be to never fail, so how do we make it work better and be more able to be repaired over time?”

Sun said she is “pleased that the newly renovated facility represents not only physical upgrades and enhancements but also enhanced opportunities for both teaching and research.”

The Civil Engineering department hopes to conduct an Open House of the Dahlem Infrastructure Structural Testing Lab Facility in fall 2021 for alumni and local companies to showcase its capabilities.