March 14-27, 2003
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Author Tom Clancy to be ‘Clear and Present’ at U.Va. March 21
Political humor: A tribute to Herblock
Finding history among the trees
How do buildings fall?
Grant will help professor show students how structures collapse
Kirk Martini
Photo by Jenny Gerow
Kirk Martini, who teaches structural design and digital media, is developing software, called Arcade, that will expand architecture and engineering students’ understanding of how structures collapse. Students need to understand what will happen if a building loses a column or two, and that the failure of one structural element does not mean the building will fall down, Martini says. The Arcade image, below, is a detail of a simulation of a truss structure sinking and collapsing into soft mud.

By Jane Ford

Speeding cars, explosions, buildings falling down and the fluid movement of figures are the hallmark of games and animation on today’s computer screens.

The creators of state-of-the-art programs such as Sodaplay use physics engines — programs that simulate Newton’s laws of motion and real-time response of materials to loads — to create the realistic motion that users find so engaging.

“The gaming industry will do whatever they can to make a better game,” said Kirk Martini, U.Va. associate professor of architecture who teaches structural design and digital media. “But they are not concerned with technical accuracy. They want it to look good.”

Martini is concerned with technical accuracy. But he wants to create a tool to teach structural engineering that would be as much fun as computer games.
Employing the same physics engine technology, Martini is developing software that will expand architecture and engineering students’ understanding of how structures collapse.

Funded by a $58,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Martini will develop an interactive computer-based program that will analyze dynamic forces on structural elements such as trusses, beams and columns. Students will be able to test a structure in real-time analysis under virtually real conditions. The goal is to create a program with engineering rigor, modeling realistic structures with engineering accuracy.

detail of a simulation of a truss structure sinking and collapsing into soft mud

“The long-range objective of the project is to improve structural education by instilling in students a much stronger understanding of non-linear behavior,” said Martini. He foresees using an exercise manual with examples and modules on various topics, which will allow the material to be easily incorporated into existing engineering classes.

“The structural engineering curriculum at the undergraduate level spends little time addressing the behavior of structural systems under extreme conditions, such as blasts, fires and earthquakes,” said Martini. The Oklahoma City bombing and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks underscored the fact that bad things happen, and students need to understand what will happen if a building loses a column or two.

Many engineers currently are designing with these factors in mind, he said.
He emphasized that students need to understand that the failure of one element does not mean the building will fall down.

Most computer programs that look at these phenomena stop when the first member fails. Martini’s program will follow the event through so that safeguards and contingencies can be considered.

The program, called Arcade, is in the prototype stage and will be under development in 2003. Martini and engineering professors Thomas Baber and Jose Gomez will spend another year testing it in undergraduate architecture and engineering structure classes.

“Engineers spend a lot of time with numbers — computing and evaluating structures,” said Baber. “Students have trouble visualizing the responses of structures. The idea of a program like this is to bring the visual back in the classroom and extend their intuition of what will happen.”

 


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