Modern engineers would look at these old bridges and say that doesn't make sense. My approach is to look at it almost like an archeologist, where this is a historic artifact of engineering, and you can learn something about the people that designed it and built it. You can learn something about their culture – what they knew, what they didn't know, what they understood and maybe what they misunderstood.
Most professors take their work home with them. Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Stephen Buonopane brought his house to work.
As part of a Campus Heritage Grant that Bucknell received from the Getty Foundation, Buonopane worked with engineering and art history students to research the history and status of several of the University's older buildings. Given the predominance of brick on campus, the students wanted to compare the properties of old versus new bricks. Leftover new bricks were readily available from recent construction; the old bricks came from Buonopane's 1846 downtown Lewisburg residence, where he had recently dismantled an abandoned chimney.
Buonopane has also researched and documented the engineering history of 19th and early 20th century bridges. For one project, he acquired pieces of bridges demolished near Lewisburg, including a massive steel connection built in 1902. Students disassembled the joint, made careful measurements and created a three-dimensional computer model. The information lends insights into past practices, and may guide future efforts to preserve similar historic structures.
"Modern engineers would look at these old bridges and say that doesn't make sense," Buonopane says. "My approach is to look at it almost like an archeologist, where this is a historic artifact of engineering, and you can learn something about the people that designed it and built it. You can learn something about their culture – what they knew, what they didn't know, what they understood and maybe what they misunderstood."
Buonopane, who holds the Rooke Chair in the Historical and Social Context of Engineering, often comes across unwitting revivals of historic techniques in modern structures. "I have a file where I keep track of articles you see in engineering journals promoting this great new idea that is actually 100-years old," he says. "The laws of physics don't change, so a lot of these old ideas are actually pretty good."
Some old ideas play into Buonopane's research into the distinctly modern field of sustainable building design. With many historic structures still standing and in use while remnants of the 1980s condominium boom are hauled off to landfills, the past may have some lessons for contemporary design. In a field that has been largely dominated by architects, Buonopane is especially interested in helping structural engineers understand how they can contribute to sustainable construction by considering a building's entire life-cycle from the acquisition of raw materials to its end-of-life.
Buonopane also studies structural reliability — trying to understand how uncertainty and randomness affect the safety of modern building structures. "This is not to suggest that we build in an unsafe fashion," he says. "The idea is if you understand it better, you can build or design in a safer fashion."
The range of Buonopane's specialties obviously extends in many directions, which is one reason he finds working at Bucknell so satisfying, especially since it involves active undergraduate participation. "I have a wide range of interests," he says. "Bucknell gave me the research freedom and support to do the things I was interested in."
Posted Sept. 9, 2009