design thinkers

A dream job for this structural engineer

When I was a kid, I knew that I was destined to be a structural engineer.  I was the kid on my block with the largest Lego set, who enjoyed building structures out of them and determining the best way to construct them.  In high school, during one of my physics classes, the teacher taught us that a truss is an assembly of beams that creates a strong rigid structure. He then challenged multiple groups to build the strongest truss out of toothpicks and glue.  Our team won this challenge. At this point, I solidified my decision to become a structural engineer and never looked back.

It is truly amazing the impact a great teacher can have on you – I recall how he encouraged our group and made the subject of structural analysis and statics fascinating to me.

Fast forward to 2020, and my intrigue with designing complex structural framed buildings has made working at SLAM a perfect fit.  Our architects design and detail structures that would challenge any structural engineer.  My work on the current Central Campus Classroom Building and Ruthven Renovation project at the University of Michigan is one of those structures.

Our team of Architects and Engineers working alongside HED Architects and Construction Manager, Barton Malow, were tasked by the University to make a 550-person lecture hall fit on the first floor of a new 4-story steel framed building.

To achieve this, it would require a 120’ x 80’ floorplan without any interior columns.  A challenge with this plan is that the three floors and roof above this space still required support.  This created a unique and challenging structural condition that took an entire team of structural engineers to analyze, design and detail the individual elements of this truss.  We designed and studied many configurations, framing options and truss layouts – not only considering the design, but considering how it would get constructed in the field.

We determined the best solution was to construct a 120’ long truss 20’ deep to support all the framing above it.

Designing the truss on paper is one thing, but to observe the construction of the truss in pieces on the job site is quite an achievement.  This complex construction and erection required frequent preconstruction meetings to discuss how it would be achieved. Constructing the truss involved obtaining rare steel beam rolled shapes from Europe. It demanded weeks to weld all the gusset plates and install over 1,000 bolts for connecting all the truss elements.  Top and bottom elements of the truss and the columns consisted of steel that weighed over 500 pounds per foot and had flanges 3 ½” thick.

A structural engineers dream come true!

Not going to lie; I was glued to the web camera the day the 97-ton truss was slowly lifted into place by utilizing multiple cranes.  Once the last bolt was installed, a sense of accomplishment far outweighed the long hours working on this unique structure.

SLAM’s purpose—creativity in design to enrich lives—is evident on this project.  And to think more than 25 years ago, I was designing trusses using toothpicks!