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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.

Centers, Consortia & Institutes

The CMSC is a partnership between our CEM program and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) that fosters collaborative problem solving and implementation in construction engineering and management. Both organizations work together to identify opportunities where CMSC can be the most useful and effective. CMSC research products and guidance are immediately implementable by WisDOT in the form of procedural manuals, specifications in construction contracts, new operational or inspection practices, training materials and other solutions.

The Construction Club is a student organization that has provided social and professional development opportunities for CEM undergraduate and graduate students for over 25 years. Club hosts events held annually include mock interviews, mock bid competitions, job site visits, national conferences, networking evenings, social events, and the annual Construction Club Banquet, which is heavily attended and supported by industry leaders and alumni. The Construction Club is an umbrella organization for student chapters of AGC (Associated General Contractors), NECA (The National Electrical Contractors Association), MCAA (The Mechanical Contractors Association of America), ABC (Associated Builders and Contractors) and CSI (The Construction Specifications Institute).

The Digital and Robotic Construction (DARC) lab is directed by CEE Assistant Professor Dr. Zhenhua Zhu. The lab provides high-quality leadership on research, education, and technology transfer to address construction engineering and management issues related to construction productivity, quality, and safety. DARC works with international, national, and local public and private agencies to solve research problems of great significance and create feasible and sustainable methods and prototypes that gradually advance construction automation and robotics.

The DARC lab has a strong relationship with the National Science Foundation (NSF), which helps provide financial support for DARC activities, alongside the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and industry partners. Moving forward, DARC is seeking additional partnerships with organizations, agencies, and research groups that are concerned with fundamental research in construction data sensing, analysis, simulation, and visualization.

Recent Projects

One of the earliest and most essential decisions that a construction project owner must make is how the project will be delivered. The choice of project delivery system (PDS) dictates project roles and responsibilities, along with when the project contract will be signed and the language therein, so it must be made before collaborative partners are brought on board. The Downstream and Chemical (DCC) sector is no exception to this process. However, much of the existing literature on project delivery systems (PDS) does not accurately reflect the current state of the practice in delivering construction projects.

A dramatic increase in the volume of literature published that concerns PDS over the last 20 years has both fueled and fed off an industry-wide surge in interest in PDS. The last decade in particular has revolutionized this area with greater emphasis placed on collaboration. It is now an industry requirement that collaboration be both imperative to and facilitated by the contracting mechanisms within the PDS itself.

A UW-Madison-led research team developed two major tools to assist owners and stakeholders in the DCC sector during their selection of project delivery systems. The first of these is a concept file that defines success, conditions for application, and obstacles that may be encountered in the use of project delivery systems. The second is an assessment rubric, which provides a scorecard-like system to determine the appropriateness of a given PDS for a project, tailored to the unique needs of the company and project at a specific time. Learn more about this project from the Construction Industry Institute.

Project Sponsor: Construction Industry Institute (CII) Downstream and Chemical Research Sector

Research Team: Awad S. Hanna (PI), Zhenhua Zhu (Co-PI), Jeff Russell (Co-PI), Joe Said (MSCE, UW-Madison class of 2021), Jack Morrison (department staff), and 14 industry partners from firms including ExxonMobil, Georgia Pacific, and Day & Zimmermann.

The execution phase of a construction project is when the most obstacles or issues are typically observed, but in reality, this phase is just the tip of the iceberg. The effectiveness of the execution stage is determined largely by construction planning and control. Part of this process is the Production Strategy Process (PSP), during which a massive volume of information is transferred between and among the project stakeholders. The current PSP in use across the industry is document-focused and largely driven by the issuance of revised drawings. This approach can create gaps in information, if all parties are not working from the same set of documents.

With this challenge in mind, UW researchers developed a system based in Augmented Reality (AR) that pivots from the current document-centric approach to a model-centric approach that leverages Building Information Modeling (BIM). This new approach was validated on real-world job sites and was found to enhance decision making, increase safety integration, reduce errors, and improve project quality.

 Project Sponsors: The Boldt Company and The Construction Industry Institute

Research Team: Awad Hanna (PI), Raj Veeramani (Co-PI), and Hala Nassereddine (Ph.D, UW-Madison class of 2019)

In the modern construction sector, there is a tremendous pressure to proceed. Permitting, approvals, and pre-construction delays are often drawn out and tedious, making the notice to proceed a welcome relief. However, a notice to proceed does not ensure a readiness to proceed; and moving forward without sufficient preparation can negatively impact productivity and performance across a variety of construction activities.

An overcautious person might choose to simply wait longer, ensuring readiness through a patient assessment of the facts. At the same time, delaying for too long past the point of readiness has its own set of negative impacts. It is far easier to point to I-beams rising out of the ground as an indicator of progress, than it is to illustrate on a planning board, for example. However, projects that jump the gun are often the ones that end up in litigation due to negative impacts on cost, schedule, productivity, and change. So how can we better determine project readiness and minimize the number of projects that proceed before they are ready?

Our research team set out to tackle this question by considered a large sample size of construction projects, and through a dual-pronged approach of statistical analysis and industry recommendation, defined 228 unique readiness factors which impact the overall readiness of a project. Each factor is simplified to a binary operator (i.e. it either is or is not present). This approach creates an effective framework for industry professionals to quickly and easily assess readiness. To further facilitate this solution and the resulting assessment, the UW-Madison CEM research team has developed an automated tool that can score projects for the user. Learn more about this Construction Readiness Assessment project.

Project Sponsor: Construction Industry Institute (CII) Downstream and Chemical Research Sector

Research Team: Awad S. Hanna (PI), Jeff Russell (Co-PI), Raj Veeramani (Co-PI), Michael Ibrahim (Ph.D, UW-Madison class of 2018), Youssef Labib (MSCE, UW-Madison class of 2019), and Jack Morrison (department staff).

The most common means used to mediate and settle disputes in construction are court claims and litigation, which stems from the nature of risk allocation in construction contracts. Most parties in construction partnerships are typically risk-averse to a point of fault, meaning they seek to allocate as much risk as possible to other parties. This can lead to long, drawn-out discussions to determine which party is responsible for delays, increased costs, and other  negative impacts. This landmark book published provides methods to quantify impact to a high degree of accuracy, provides methods to proactively mitigate or avoid claims altogether, and further delves into certain key legal precedents to help contracting parties understand major precedents that may impact their process.

Project Team: Awad Hanna (PI), Jack Morrison (department staff), Lauren Welker (BSCE, class of 2022), Calob Limberg (BSCE, class of 2022), Anson Liow (BSCE, class of 2022), Kenn Sulivan (Ph.D, class of 2004), and Justin Swanson (MSCE, class of 2006).

Faculty Leadership

Affiliated Faculty

Instructional Staff & Professors of Practice

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.”