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Civil & Environmental Engineering Research

Students on a building construction site.

Construction Engineering & Management

The Construction Engineering and Management (CEM) program at UW-Madison is one of the most renowned programs of its kind in the United States. Graduates of the CEM program receive a bachelor of science degree in civil and environmental engineering with a construction engineering and management emphasis. Current research in this focus area ranges from innovative technologies in construction sensing, wearable equipment, and visualization to water and power-efficient processes and infrastructure, as well as construction automation and robotics.

Challenges Facing the Construction Industry

The construction industry faces two emerging challenges in terms of its workforce and the resources that make construction possible. Fewer young people are entering the industry, creating a growing need for new talent to replace those who are retiring or changing professions. At the same time, the environmental costs of construction are high and the demand for constructed facilities continues to increase. Despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, construction spending rose to $1.68 trillion dollars in January 2022, an eight percent increase over January 2021. As for the environmental cost, experts estimate that construction accounts for 23 percent of air pollution, 40 percent of drinking water pollution, and up to 50 percent of solid landfill waste. In addition, construction consumes 40 percent of the world’s raw stone, gravel, and sand, and 25 percent of virgin wood annually.

As the demand for construction grows, the resources it requires put increasing strain on our environment, signaling the need for a new path forward. With a focus on sustainable and innovative solutions, the Construction Engineering and Management (CEM) program at UW-Madison brings together researchers, students, and industry partners to advance methods, materials, and productivity at all levels of the construction process.

Forging a Sustainable Path Forward in Construction Engineering & Management

To improve the construction industry at-large, and by extension, the built environment in which we all live and work, our Construction Engineering and Management research group takes a three-pronged approach that centers on technology, sustainability, and workforce development. The construction industry currently lags behind many similar industries in its adoption of technology. It is not uncommon, for example, to see construction teams still working from printed, paper drawings despite a host of digital platforms that can better facilitate site coordination.

Working with industry partners, UW researchers are developing strategies to digitize and advance the use of innovative technologies in construction sensing, wearable equipment, and visualization that will increase the efficiency of individual workers. To reduce the environmental cost of construction, we are developing more sustainable processes and new construction materials. These measures include biodegradable and/or recycled construction materials, water and power-efficient processes and infrastructure (like solar-powered facilities or equipment) and streamlining the design and construction process to reduce waste caused by rework, changes, or design flaws. To help address workforce needs, we are investigating the possibilities and potential improvements that prefabrication, modularization of constructed facilities, construction automation and robotics, and 3D-printed building elements can have on project outcomes.

Real-World Projects & Partnerships Fuel the Future of CEM at UW-Madison

UW-Madison students and researchers alike are fortunate to work extensively with industry partners from here in Wisconsin, across the country, and beyond. Local partners include The Boldt Company of Appleton, Wisconsin, and M.A. Mortenson of Minneapolis, Minnesota. ELECTRI International, the Construction Industry Institute (CII), and the New Horizons Foundation are nationwide partners that we often work with, while the Mechanical Contractors’ Association of Canada and the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) are valued global partners.

This breadth of partnerships reflects our core philosophy: that construction research and education are best conducted with real-world project data. To that end, our research is grounded in data from actual construction projects and many courses include guidance from expert practitioners in the field of Construction Engineering and Management. We also frequently engage in funded studies that verify or develop new processes for our industry partners, like a recent effort to create an augmented-reality enhanced scheduling and sequencing tool and another which provided an automated scoring tool to assess a project’s readiness for construction. This experience gives students the chance to learn directly from the industry, while developing the skills that they need to succeed and networking with people they may one day collaborate with.

Students can expect to be immersed in a host of real-world construction projects, while working with industry thought leaders and innovators. The volume of research being performed by our program is second to none, giving students ample opportunity to get involved at any point during their time on campus. Graduates of our program are fully prepared to work in the construction industry right away or continue with graduate school to further deepen their expertise.

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Bringing automated gesture input to construction sites

CEE graduate student Xin Wang and Assistant Professor Zhenhua Zhu are combining civil engineering and computer science to advance how humans and equipment interact in the construction industry.

“Our research is really for the future since there’s not yet a lot in the way of robotics on construction sites,” Wang says. “With the advent of more construction robots, we think our research can have a broader impact across the construction scene.”