Why a bridge?

11/6/2015 4:56:00 AM

By Liang Liu
Associate Head and Director of Undergraduate Studies
William E. O’Neil Faculty Scholar

The idea of constructing a bridge to connect the Newmark Civil Engineering Laboratory and the HydroSystems Laboratory has a long history, dating back to when the two buildings were being planned in the 1960s. As a part of the next phase of CEE’s 10- to 15-year modernization plan, this bridge connecting the two buildings will finally be realized, nearly half a century later.  The preliminary concept is to construct a functional, aesthetic, inspiring and monumental bridge to highlight and honor civil engineering graduates who have dedicated their careers to the design and construction of civil infrastructures that impact the lives of millions of people on a daily basis. 

The bridge will not only connect CEE’s two main structures, but also serve as a living laboratory for education and research in bridge design and engineering. Spanning 115 feet with the width of 16.5 feet, at an elevation of 30.5 feet above ground, this signature bridge will be a new gateway to the north engineering quad, including the new Electrical and Computer Engineering building to the west and the iconic Beckman Institute to the north. Instrumented with state-of-the-art sensors on key structural components, the smart bridge will provide students with opportunities to observe, understand and experiment with the dynamic forces of a bridge.   Incorporating innovative materials and advanced computing, the bridge will provide a platform for experimental, modeling and simulation research, in addition to serving as an interactive design tool. The bridge design will also explore and showcase the latest sustainable energy and environmental design options, including wind, photovoltaic, geothermal and piezoelectric energy.


The proposed bridge will symbolically and physically connect CEE research groups from the Hydrosystems Laboratory, which has housed the Environmental Hydrology and Hydraulic Engineering area, and Newmark Laboratory, which has traditionally been the home of the other areas of study, including Construction Engineering and Management, Construction Materials, Environmental Engineering and Science, Geotechnical Engineering, Structural Engineering and Mechanics and Transportation Engineering. Because the full renovation of the Hydro Lab will include labs and classrooms to be used by all areas of the department, including the newer cross-disciplinary programs of Energy-Water-Environment Sustainability, Societal Risk Management and Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure Systems, this project will further promote interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty, students and researchers.

In early 2015, CEE Department Head Benito J. Mariñas appointed a CEE Modernization Committee chaired by Professor Marcelo García. The committee has sought recommendations from faculty, staff, students and alumni. In July, the University hired an A/E (Architectural/Engineering) firm to explore the proposed conceptual designs, with the goal of completing a detailed design November 2016. After construction, bidding and award, actual construction is scheduled to start in March 2017. The facility will open for the incoming class of fall 2018. 


Since 2014, I have worked with CEE students Sarah A. Nelson (MS 14), Matthew C. McClone (BS 14, MS 15), Alexander M. Dowd (BS 15)—all alumni now—and Alexandra H. Zach, a CEE junior, to develop conceptual models to reflect the collective wisdom, creativity and preference of CEE’s constituents, in hopes of conveying a clear and coherent vision to pass on to the A/E. As one faculty member put it, “We’d better be sure we design and build it right. It might be another 50 years before we do this again.”  

Knowing how to design and build it right is never easy, because of the diverse objectives and ever changing needs of teaching, laboratories, research and student activities.  Among the planned facilities of classrooms, computer laboratories, design studio, hands-on laboratories and student collaboration spaces, the “smart bridge” has generated the most heated debates and discussions—all civilized, of course, thanks to our civil engineering training. Some have favored a single-pier cable-stayed bridge. Others have said an elegant suspension bridge with self-anchoring cables should be built. Some have preferred a curved bridge. Others have vouched for a straight one. There is no shortage of opinions—represented on this page by a selection of quotes from our students—but we welcome them all.

If the bridge is to be successful in all the ways we envision—as a practical teaching tool, as a demonstration of what the most talented civil and environmental engineers can create, as an inspiring new campus landmark informing all visitors that they are in the presence of the world’s top civil and environmental engineering program—we will need everyone’s help, both to imagine the bridge and to realize it.

To support  the CEE Modernization Plan, please contact Celeste Arbogast, celeste@illinois.edu, (217) 333-6955 or Benito Mariñas, marinas@illinois.edu, (217) 333-6961.