From the ground up

In this age of technology, masonry has become more than just bricks and mortar, according to one U of C researcher. Dr. Shelley Lissel hopes to build upon the world’s second-oldest engineering profession at a new masonry research centre at the University of Calgary, thanks to a $157,690 grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation’s New Opportunities Program.


"The goal is to look at developing sustainable infrastructure," said Lissel. "Deteriorating and aging masonry structures is a major multi-billion dollar a year problem."


Lissel’s research will focus on two areas: researching new masonry materials that will not corrode, unlike steel rebar currently in use; and developing new structural health monitoring systems that are able to report on structural damage due to aging or earthquakes.


"One example is the south end of the physical education building, at the top of the concrete columns, big chunks of concrete have fallen off and the steel has rusted," said Lissel of one of the oldest buildings on campus.


According to Lissel, using fiberglass instead of steel would solve the rusting problem, but that poses challenges of its own. While steel is a ductile material (which deforms before failing), fiberglass is brittle, failing suddenly. The behaviour of these and other masonry materials under stress, particularly from earthquakes and storms, is something Lissel will examine using the new dynamic load testing equipment and sensors embedded in structural masonry.


"In India, the collapse of housing structures is the leading cause of death during earthquakes," she said. "We want to use materials they have available cheaply to build better ultra-low-cost housing to prevent that."


There is substantial local interest in the research since many of Calgary’s historic buildings such as the old City Hall and McDougall Centre are masonry buildings, and international interest from areas like Cuba where there is a strong masonry tradition.


Lissel also hopes this new research centre, the second of its kind in Canada, will draw attention to the structural and aesthetic qualities of masonry buildings and to innovations in the masonry field.


"This is a way of showing that civil engineers are keeping up with the new technologies and new materials," she said.

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