More than classrooms, offices, and laboratories for Virginia Tech, the Signature Engineering Building is a ground-breaking experiment to measure even the smallest vibrations made inside the building.
The project, spearheaded by Department of Mechanical Engineering faculty members Pablo Tarazaga and Mary Kasarda and their Smart Infrastructure Laboratory, is designed as a test bed to track data related to building design and security, occupancy monitoring for emergency response, structural health monitoring, and more.
Roughly 240 accelerometers attached to 136 sensor mounts throughout the building’s ceilings will detect information on where people are within the structure, measure normal structural settling and wind loads, and — vital for future engineering designs — track building movement resulting from earthquakes similar to the event that struck Virginia in 2011.
“My background is in structural vibrations and dynamic validation,” said Tarazaga, founder of the infrastructure laboratory and an assistant professor. “We use these types of sensors in all kinds of systems such as helicopters, satellites, automobiles, etc., and it struck me, as the building was being constructed outside of my window in Durham Hall, that we should do the same thing here.”
The vibration accelerometers will be sensitive enough to infer foot traffic patterns, be it two or 40 people. Smart Infrastructure Laboratory members won’t be able to identify who is walking but will tell their presence by detecting the motion of footfalls.
“The sensors measure small vibrations,” said Kasarda, an associate professor. “These vibrations can tell us many things about the building instantaneously and over time. These movements can be related back to the health of the building, the human-structure interactions inside the building, how the building changes over time, and gauge the accuracy of the mathematical models of the building.”
The data collected can help with a variety of industries, from security companies to building designers and engineers.
Structures are planned with weight bearing loads in mind dependent on the number of foreseen occupants. This data can determine if those numbers are correct and inform future designs.
Vibration detection is just the beginning. The lab already is making plans to add more sensors, such as instruments to measure air flow and temperature for energy-related research.
Visitors will have access to some of the data as it is collected. “As people move through the building, they will induce vibrations that will be seen on monitors,” Tarazaga said.
Output ports will be open for engineering and construction students to hook into and retrieve live data. “This is creating a hands-on field experience for engineering students within the university curriculum without them ever leaving campus,” Kasarda said. “Students will use the data for very different classes with different outcome goals.”
Data collection is expected to start in late summer or fall 2014.
A sensor array mounted outside the building will measure external vibrations, such as wind, the bustle of traffic on nearby Prices Fork Road, the thunderous boom of tens of thousands of Hokie fans celebrating a touchdown at Lane Stadium, and possible seismic activity.
“Having data regarding ground motion is crucial as we need to know what the earth outside the building is doing so that we can relate that information to the building’s behavior,” Tarazaga said.
Research Associate Professor Martin Chapman of the Department of Geosciences, assisted in the effort, including in plotting where the sensor was placed, Tarazaga said. Other partners in the vibration sensor project are across the entire university, including the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Department of Mathematics, and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology.
Joseph Hamilton of Nashville, Tenn., a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, is among the lab members coordinating with Gilbane Building Company and Tarazaga and Kasarda to install sensors. “Instrumenting a structure of this size has been a great challenge, and working with an active construction site is definitely a new experience. It's actually been really enjoyable working with everyone to create something that will impact so many students and offer such a great research platform for the future,” he said.
Mico Woolard of Virginia Beach, Va., and a master’s student, added, “I find the idea of being part of something so much bigger than myself inspiring.”
The Signature Engineering Building at the corner of Prices Fork Road and Stanger Street is the new flagship building for the College of Engineering. It will house 40 instructional and research labs, eight classrooms, an auditorium, and 150 offices for several engineering departments.
Construction on the project, funded in part by state support and donor gifts, began in fall 2011.
"It's a real-world, operational, full-scale test bed for research and education," said Mary Kasarda, co-director of the Smart Infrastructure Laboratory at Virginia Tech.
College of Engineering alumnus David Childress, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering in 2006, is the building’s project manager.
Childress joined Gilbane Building Company after graduation and worked on projects including a hospital and a lab building for a pharmaceutical company.
He was honored this past April as a Distinguished Young Alumnus as part of Virginia Tech’s Academy of Engineering Excellence.
As an undergraduate, he parked his 1999 Nisan Maxima in the same lot where the building now stands.
Car maker and jet engine builder Rolls Royce donated a Trent 1000 jet engine to the College of Engineering to display at the Signature Engineering Building. The 13,000-pound, 9-foot-high engine is now suspended 15 feet in the air over the atrium of the new building and will be used as a teaching tool for students for generations to come.
Joseph Hamilton of Nashville, Tenn., a doctoral student in mechanical engineering and as member of the Virginia Tech Smart Infrastructure Laboratory, installs a series of sensors in the ceiling of the Signature Engineering Building.