Multimillion-dollar research center addresses construction challenges

contact: Jeanne Baron
| WMU News

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—An interdisciplinary group of Western Michigan University researchers is busily studying new and creative ways to build better in an age of climate change and other global challenges facing the construction industry.

Their activities are being funded by grants from WMU's Georgeau Construction Research Center, which was established in 2016 through a $5 million gift from Phil Georgeau of Kalamazoo and his late wife, Betty.

The couple funded the center to not only advance the construction industry through innovative research, but also to create better, stronger, safer, sustainable and more resilient construction systems and materials. Housed in Floyd Hall and administered by the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the center already has awarded $350,000 in grants to seven projects being conducted by faculty members at the University.

In addition, construction has begun on a $1 million lab that will open this fall in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences annex near the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport. The state-of-the-art laboratory facility will allow researchers to evaluate roofing system designs under extreme wind loads as well as study the properties of large-scale structural elements and samples under different loading conditions, including seismic loads.

Need for change

According to government figures, the construction industry contributed more than $1 trillion to America's gross domestic product and employed some 7 million people in 2017.

Headshot, Dr. Osama Abudayyeh.

Dr. Osama Abudayyeh

Dr. Osama Abudayyeh, chair of the Department of Civil and Construction Engineering and founding director of the Georgeau Center, notes that it's important for this industry to remain competitive, given its huge impact on the U.S. economy.

"We're facing a host of challenges, from evolving regulatory requirements, population increases and energy shortages to air quality issues, a rising ambient temperature and more violent weather," Abudayyeh explains. "Engineers and architects have been forced to rethink traditional building codes and construction practices. It's not only sensible to change how we do things, it's become mandatory."

With that reality in mind, the Georgeau Center aims to:

  • Advance the construction body of knowledge through innovative research.
  • Distill research results into best practices that can be implemented by industry.
  • Educate the next generation of construction researchers by engaging undergraduate and graduate students alike in the center's research.
  • Transfer technology to industry through product development as well as publications, workshops and other knowledge dissemination.

"We need to adapt our materials and construction practices to new realities and we need to provide higher levels of training for construction professionals," Abudayyeh says. "The cutting-edge, forward-thinking research and training we're doing at the Georgeau Center will accomplish both."

Phil and Betty Georgeau

Phil Georgeau earned a bachelor degree in chemistry from WMU. He went on to found Chem Link, a company based in Schoolcraft that manufactures adhesive, sealant and coating products for the construction industry that employed 104 people at the time Phil and Betty sold it in 2016.

The couple also gifted $250,000 in 2016 to the WMU Office for Sustainability to boost its studies in environmental and renewable building materials issues that impact the Earth's survivability.

In addition, the Georgeau family established a $500,000 endowed scholarship in Betty's name to support undergraduate students pursuing engineering degrees in programs offered through the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at WMU. Betty was a registered nurse who worked locally at Bronson Methodist Hospital for many years as well as spent 14 years with the American Red Cross.

Examples of center research

Headshot, Dr. Upul Attanayake.

Dr. Upul Attanayake

Headshot, Dr. William Liou.

Dr. William Liou

Headshot, Dr. Xiaoyun Shao.

Dr. Xiaoyun Shao

This spring, the Georgeau Center awarded continuation grants to principal investigators at WMU that build on eclectic work that the center first funded in 2017.

  • Dr. Upul Attanayake, associate professor of civil and construction engineering, and Dr. William Liou, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, received $50,000 to further Attanayake's recent evaluation of roof systems and materials for improving structural resilience in damaging winds such as tornados and hurricanes. That research has identified the need to develop numerical simulation expertise to assess the performance of roofing and structural systems. The continuation project includes designing a mobile outdoor experiment facility to evaluate sensors and validate numerical simulation models. It also will be used for STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—education and other outreach activities.
  • Dr. William Liou has built a predictive tool to simulate incidents of fire and smoke events and predict the location and likely growth of fire and smoke in smart buildings. The second phase of his research involves developing two datasets for predicting fire spread in smart buildings and then using those datasets to design an artificial intelligence-based algorithm for big data analytics for fire safety in these buildings. The nearly half million structure fires in the U.S. each year cause 17,000 injuries and deaths, and $10 billion in property losses.
  • Dr. Xiaoyun Shao, associate professor of civil and construction engineering, has been studying an innovative application of construction adhesives to enhance the resilience of wood-frame buildings. With her latest grant, Shao will investigate additional novel approaches to dramatically enhance the resilience of wood-frame buildings using construction adhesives to improve strength and stiffness. Damage to those structures from earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural hazards leads to tremendous economic loss and emotional distress in North America, where wood-frame construction is predominantly used.

Learn more about the Georgeau Construction Research Center online.

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