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Consortium for Holistic Steel Systems members John Klein, Hannah Blum, Andrea Hicks and Thomas Sputo
June 27, 2024

With a strong foundation, new steel consortium at UW-Madison blends sustainability with structural integrity

Written By: Alex Holloway

A new research consortium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison leverages structural engineering research excellence and the applied experience of industrial partners.

Hannah Blum, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, is director of the Consortium for Holistic Steel Systems. The industry-academia partnership brings together experienced engineers with researchers at UW-Madison, drawing on the strengths of both to tackle challenges facing the steel industry.

“In academia, we know how to design and conduct complex research projects,” Blum says. “We know how to mentor students who will be the future of the field. But we should always want to be sure that what we’re doing impacts the community for the better. The best way to do that is by integrating and working with experienced design engineers who can make sure that we’re on the right path while contributing the wealth of knowledge they’ve obtained from years of working in the industry.”

The consortium officially launched on June 1, 2024, and focuses on enhancing steel’s use in three key areas: reliability, robustness, and responsibility. Reliability deals with the long-term integrity of steel structures and systems, while robustness includes their ability to withstand adverse conditions such as earthquakes or storms. 

Thomas Sputo, technical director of the Steel Deck Institute and a consortium member through his consulting firm, says how people look at reliability and robustness varies based on location. “I live in Florida, so one of the big things people worry about here are hurricanes,” he says. “A challenge in this area is building structures that can withstand wind and water. Recently, I was at a conference, and researchers from Australia were talking about bushfires and how to withstand those.”

Responsibility looks at steel’s environmental impact from raw materials to finished products, including any recycled products that might extend its life cycle. Typically, structural integrity and environmental impact considerations are considered separately in the steel industry. Blum says the consortium (which will include Andrea Hicks, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and expert in life cycle analysis research), will be a leader in looking at the bigger picture of steel.

“I’ve worked with Dr. Blum for a long time, and we’ve been keenly aware that a lot of people are very concerned about the sustainability of construction materials and of construction methods,” Sputo says. “We did some brainstorming and realized that when you think about some of the structural design aspects for these structures, some of those things like being able to withstand severe adverse events are driven by climate change. So, it starts to make sense to link all of these things and look at them together.”

Blum is already working on several projects related to steel system reliability of steel joists and deck systems and cold-formed steel framing systems. The consortium will expand on the system reliability research by considering the integration with robustness and responsibility. The consortium’s research can take advantage of some of the unique tools and facilities available at UW-Madison, such as a vacuum box in the Jun and Sandy Lee Wisconsin Structures and Materials Testing Laboratory, which Blum is using for some of her ongoing research. 

John Klein, a civil and environmental engineering professor of practice and longtime structural engineer, will also participate in the consortium. Luca Mastropasqua, a mechanical engineering professor, will also join the consortium. Blum is the Alain H. Peyrot Fellow in Structural Engineering. Hicks is the Nosbusch Engineering Professor and Hanson Family Fellow in Sustainability. 

The Holistic Steel Systems Consortium is supported by founding sponsors Steel Dynamics, Inc./New Millennium, Canam Steel Corporation, ASC Steel Deck., Steel Deck Institute, Steel Framing Industry Association, Complete Structural Consulting, and Sputo and Lammert Engineering.

Featured image caption: Consortium for Holistic Steel Systems members John Klein, Hannah Blum, Andrea Hicks and Thomas Sputo will work together to enhance steel’s reliability, robustness and environmental responsibility through research in collaboration with industry partners. Credit: Alex Holloway.