skip to main content

CEE alum, professor collaborate to optimize design of auditorium beams for Campus Instructional Facility

4/5/2021 9:51:25 AM

Shelly Zhang view installed beams at CIF
Shelly Zhang views installed beams at CIF for the first time.

When the new Campus Instructional Facility opens this year on the University of Illinois campus, the structural design of the auditorium ceiling will be the result of a unique collaboration by a faculty member and alumna of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and industry partner Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), a structural engineering and architectural design firm.

The Campus Instructional Facility is a 122,000-square-foot building being constructed at the corner of Springfield Avenue and Wright Street in Champaign. It will feature five levels of state-of-the-art instructional spaces – including active-learning and distance-learning environments and innovative technology – plus testbeds for student entrepreneurship and student engagement.

The auditorium is the largest room in the building, built into a two-story space encompassing parts of the basement and first floor. For help with the design of the long-span, sloping ceiling of this room, SOM Consulting Partner and CEE alumnus William F. Baker (MS 80) reached out to Shelly Zhang (BS 12, MS 14), an assistant professor in CEE and an alumna. Zhang had interned at SOM during her time as a student at Illinois, so Baker was familiar with her research in topology optimization under her Ph.D. adviser, Glaucio Paulino, then a professor in CEE at Illinois and frequent SOM collaborator. Paulino is now the Raymond Allen Jones Chair and Professor of Structural Engineering, Mechanics and Materials at Georgia Tech.

Topology optimization uses sophisticated mathematical algorithms to determine the optimal form of nearly any kind of structure – anything from a building component to reconstructive medical implants. In this case, SOM invited Zhang to participate in the design process of a beam that would be repeated across the span of the auditorium ceiling. It had to be strong enough to support the concrete slab and metal deck above it while also being as light as possible and utilizing materials efficiently. This called for a beam with a pattern of cutouts, rather than a solid beam. Web openings can also be used for mechanical and electrical systems to pass through the beams.

Diagram of the various possible design iterations considered during the process with different percentages of material removed.
Diagram of the various possible design iterations considered during the process with different percentages of material removed.

“The research question was where to put the openings in the beam so that it would be light, structurally efficient – satisfying all the structural requirements – and at the same time is also very beautiful and organic,” Zhang said.

Using an algorithm Zhang developed, the team explored various iterations of the beam with different percentages of material cut out – from 50 percent to 90 percent of the beam. Since the beam would be visible to the occupants of the room, there was also a consideration of aesthetics and even the comfort of users of the room. A beam that looked too lacy might meet structural requirements but make people uneasy, Zhang said.

SOM utilizes topology optimization quite a bit in its work, Baker said. The method provides “more tools in the toolbox, more informed decision-making,” he said.

“It provides information, and then you as the designer decide which of that you’re going to use and which you’re not going to use,” he said. “Sometimes we use topology optimization to help inform our ideas, to see what options are out there. Sometimes we already have an idea, and then we use topology optimization to see if we missed something – were there ideas out there that we weren’t thinking about. We use it a lot in our practice for idea generation. The computer doesn’t design the structure; the engineers design the structure.”

Other considerations in the design of the instructional building as a whole included attention to what Baker calls “honest” design, where design elements are also functional for the purpose they suggest. For example, the masonry is not just a veneer, Baker said. This principle is part of SOM’s philosophy, Baker said, and especially resonant in the design of an engineering building. This philosophy also informed the decision to make the beams of the auditorium visible to the room’s users, Baker said.

“Since it’s an engineering classroom building, can the building itself be expressive of engineering and instructive of engineering?” Baker said.

Left: Campus Instructional Facility project. Right: Beams designed by Zhang using topology optimization in collaboration with SOM.
Left: Campus Instructional Facility project. Right: Beams designed by Zhang using topology optimization in collaboration with SOM.

Additional CEE alumni and SOM employees who worked on the Campus Instructional Facility include structural engineer Toby Mitchell (MS 09) and architect Lucas Tryggestad (MS 01).

For Zhang, her alumna status made the professional opportunity to work with SOM on the project also personally meaningful.

 “This project is meaningful in many dimensions for me,” Zhang said. “As an alumna, I want to contribute, and this is a unique way for me to contribute – and I can see it every day. I was so happy and moved when it was constructed.

“My dream is that after this is completed, I hope I can teach in that auditorium, and then while I am introducing my research, I can ask the audience to look up and see a perfect example of how the research can be integrated into a real project. I think the best thing for a researcher is to see the research being used in real life.”

Photos courtesy of Shelly Zhang and SOM.