One of my favorite experiences each term is serving as a mentor for a team in Pitt’s Civil Engineering Senior Design Project program. Despite the complications of pandemic social distancing, the program has managed to continue to provide each graduating senior with a valuable “near-real-world” engineering experience as a member of an integrated design team.
The project assigned to the team I mentored dealt with the feasibility of renovating a major historical building in Brownsville, the Monongahela Railroad Union Station. Combining three of my passions – history, railroading, and engineering – it was an ideal fit for me.
The Monongahela Railroad was a joint venture of two competing lines – the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie which ran down the east side of the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh to Brownsville, and the Pennsylvania with its line on the west side. Their new subsidiary was established to exploit the coal mines in Greene and Fayette Counties in Pennsylvania as well as those in neighboring West Virginia.
Despite having fewer than 300 miles of track the Railroad hauled a large amount of coal, nearly 500 million ton-miles per year. In 1928 they built an impressive building in Brownsville to serve as their passenger station and corporate headquarters. It was the crown jewel in an extremely prosperous “downtown” in a prosperous small city.
In the latter half of the twentieth century prosperity left both the community and the Monongahela Railroad. Brownsville suffered the fate of the other Mon Valley towns, ending up with a decaying “Main Street”, boarded up store fronts, and trash filled vacant lots.
Recently local residents have established the Perennial Project, to reinvigorate downtown Brownsville. In addition, Fayette and Westmoreland Counties have sponsored an educational initiative to introduce high school students to leading edge technology. As part of this project Brownsville Area High School engaged Case Technologies Inc. to train their faculty and students in reality computing technologies. This includes laser scanning of three dimensional structures, transferring the data to Building Information Management (BIM) data bases, and then generating interactive experiences.
A product of this program was the laser scanning of downtown Brownsville, including dilapidated Union Station. Case Technologies’ Mark Dietrick was the consultant for the project. His suggestion that we do a Senior Design project on renovation of the station was eagerly accepted by John Sebastian, coordinator of our program.
Professor Sebastian assembled a strong team – two structural engineering students and two construction management students – to implement the project. Watching them handle this very difficult challenge has been a real pleasure for me.
The initial question they had to answer was “Is the existing structure sound enough to serve as the basis for renovation?” Their tools to answer it were on-site inspection, non-destructive testing to quantify the existing strength of the concrete, perusal of a partial set of original design drawings, and their ability to analyze the existing structure and evaluate it relative to contemporary design criteria. The result of their analysis was that the “bones” of the building – floor slabs, girders, and columns – were indeed capable of supporting the anticipated loads with a minimum of rework.
The next question was “What would it cost to “gut” the building sufficiently to permit a developer to evaluate repurposing it?” Professor Sebastian also coordinates the Department’s Construction Management Program; his students on this team were well equipped to answer it. The biggest unknown, of course, was the extent of hazardous material, primarily asbestos and lead, in the building. Their final estimate was $800,000, which included $350,000 for hazardous materials. The building has a basement, five floors, and a roof, each providing 7,800 square feet of area.
The next question was, “Are the “bones” good enough to support additional floors?” This would certainly be an appropriate question for any developer to ask. The structural engineers determined that the columns could support two additional floors and provided designs for them. The construction management students estimated the additional cost to be $2,400,000 per floor.
Before Covid-19 the team would have presented its final design live in a large presentation room to an audience of students, faculty, friends and family, and experienced practicing engineers from the area. These days they record their (forty-five minutes) presentation and make it available to reviewers. A week later the team meets, remotely via Zoom, for a thirty minutes question and comment session with the reviewers. This process has turned out to be reasonably effective.
Representing the Perennial Project, John McCune asked the team a series of relevant questions, then complimented them on the professionalism of their work. It was gratifying to me that seven of the ten projects this year had sufficient real-world content that an actual would-be client served as a reviewer.
Two of the other projects had ties to Carnegie – the new Port Authority Park-and-Ride garage and the extension of the Panhandle Trail into Carnegie. Both had client reviewers; I was especially pleased with the comments from the Collier Township Manager regarding the Panhandle Trail project team. Another project of local interest was the study of removing the sediment which is threatening to convert Canonsburg Lake into Canonsburg Swamp, certain to be a costly effort.
Other projects included upgrading Mount Royal Boulevard in Shaler Township, an alternate design of the LakeView Drive bridge over I-79 in Washington County, and a life-cycle comparison of two alternative designs for dormitories for the University. Also presented were a study of sustainability initiatives for the University’s U-PARC, a plan to remediate seriously contaminated soil at the Carrie Furnace site, and a design for reconstruction of a road in Foxburg. The Foxburg project is part of a program sponsored by Engineers Without Borders to provide engineering support to communities with limited resources.
Each term as we watch our graduating seniors present their capstone projects, my confidence in the future of our society is strengthened. These forty young people this term are a tiny sample of their generation, but a very impressive one.