Science / Technology and Health

Seattle U Civil Engineering Students Continue Their Winning Ways

Written by Dean Forbes

June 24, 2021

Block House drawing

A student project to use leftover cross laminated timber to build houses for the homeless earned one of eight $10,000 awards from the 2021 NCEES Engineering Awards in June.

The winning project, “Home for the Homeless using cross-laminated timber waste stream,” was sponsored by nonprofit organization The Block Project.

Since the inception of the NCEES Engineering Education Awards program in 2009, Seattle U Engineering departments have won 20 awards—18 for Civil and Environmental Engineering and two for Electrical Engineering.

Seattle University’s senior design program has been in place since 1988, well before the inception of the NCEES Engineering Awards program.

“When I read the criteria for the awards in 2009 it was as if they had SU’s senior design program in mind—preparing students to work with industry professionals and toward engineering licensure,” says Nirmala Gnanapragasam, PhD, PE, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “So, it was an easy decision to enter the competition and to remain competitive with a strong portfolio of projects we have completed over the years.”

The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing professional licensure for engineers and surveyors. The engineering awards program recognizes projects that have successfully demonstrated faculty-student-professional engineer partnerships.

To alleviate the homelessness crisis in Seattle, The Block Project builds detached 125 sq. ft. accessory dwelling units (ADU) in the backyards of willing homeowners. The surrounding community provides support to the occupants until they get back on their feet. Ten ADUs have been built since the program’s inception using traditional light wood frame construction as done with residential homes.

The civil engineering student team investigated if waste stream from cross-laminated timber (CLT) factories could be used to build a version of the ADU. CLT is a product that has come into use recently where large cross-laminated timber panels are manufactured in factory settings. Door, window and other openings are cut from these panels and the units are directly shipped to construction sites for rapid construction. The manufacturing process results in a large CLT waste stream.

“The project goal fitted very well with Seattle U’s mission,” says Gnanapragasam. “The project made the students aware of engineers’ ethical and social responsibility and it provided a great opportunity for the students to apply their knowledge and skills to improve the health, safety and welfare of the less fortunate. Students learned of ways in which engineers can contribute to solutions for large social problems.”

The student team of Alissa Capuano, Allie Elles, Derek Manaka, Jacob May and Alex Roderic, all 2020 graduates, researched the CLT manufacturing process and the nature of the waste stream by visiting a CLT factory in Spokane.

Then it came up with the design for the ADU. The students carried out the entire structural design of the ADU from foundation to the roof along with all hardware required to connect the structural members, considering gravity, wind, seismic loadings as well as floor vibration performance.

The students worked under the supervision of Michael Wright PE, SE, instructor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, as their year-long capstone project in partnership with Block architects, Facing Homelessness and other allied professionals.

“This team of young engineers did a great job both in learning about how the Block Project seeks to reduce homelessness in Seattle and how to implement an emerging sustainable wood-based material like CLT into practical design,” says Wright.