Like many teenagers, Peter King wasn’t sure how to answer the question: What do you want to do when you grow up?
His father encouraged him to visit an open house at The University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Engineering to learn more about the field. While he was there, he filled out a ballot for a summer job contest.
It was more than luck-of-the-draw that King’s name was selected. Now a research director at Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory (BLWTL), some would call it his destiny.
Western houses the first boundary layer wind tunnel in the world to test man-made structures, such as buildings and bridges. Built in 1965, the first wind tunnel (BLWT 1) can test wind speeds up to 55 miles per hour. The second wind tunnel (BLWT 2), erected in 1984, can test wind speeds up to 100 miles per hour.
“We defined the field of wind engineering,” King says.
As a Grade 12 student in 1968, King was given behind-the-scenes access to Alan Davenport, BLWTL founding director. Davenport later became King’s mentor and advisor as he completed his master’s and PhD at Western. (King also completed his undergraduate degree at Western).
“I was able to work on the CN Tower, the Sears Building in Chicago. The first bridge I was able to work on was the A. Murray Mackay Bridge in Halifax and that was when I was a summer student,” says King, who specializes in bridges. “That was really important because up until that time all bridges had been tested in aeronautical tunnels by people who had aeronautical background. (Davenport) was the one who said, ‘Don’t test bridges in smooth flow because the wind is turbulent.'”
The A. Murray Mackay Bridge was the first bridge in the world to be tested in a turbulent boundary layer wind flow.
An outstanding lecturer and researcher, Davenport, who died in 2009, was able to bridge research and industry in the classroom by bringing real-world engineering problems to students and faculty to solve.
In the early 1960s, Davenport was asked to participate in a study to define the wind loads for the tallest buildings in the world – the World Trade Center Towers in New York. Because Western didn’t have a wind tunnel, Davenport travelled to Colorado State University in 1964 to test models of the buildings in its newly constructed boundary layer wind tunnel (built in 1963). He also travelled to the National Physical Laboratory in England to conduct tests on the towers.
After jet-setting around the world to access boundary layer wind tunnels to complete his research, Davenport decided Western should have its own wind tunnel on site. He received a National Research Council of Canada grant to build the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel.
The wind tunnel was formally unveiled on Nov. 25, 1965. And it has been history-making ever since.
“It’s very exciting for students to be involved in these cutting-edge projects that will be the tallest building in the world, the longest bridge in the world,” King says, adding the experience is invaluable when entering the workforce.
Typically, the BLWTL is commissioned to test a miniature model of a building or bridge structure, based on a designer’s concept. Using this model, the BLWTL engages in a series of tests to calculate how the full-scale structure will behave under certain conditions and what loads are put on the structure.
Researchers were restricted in the size of models they could test in BLWT 1 because of the dimensions of the wind tunnel. Now, with BLWT 2, the group is able to test bigger and taller models under nearly two times the wind speeds and surface area. As well, BLWT 2 is a closed return tunnel, allowing the wind to loop through two parallel tunnel sections and can test smaller models at about a scale of 1/500 and larger scale models, 1/250 in size.
Both wind tunnels are currently in use.
Some of the major projects spearheaded by members of the BLWTL include: the World Trade Center in New York, the Willis Town (then the Sears Tower) in Chicago, the Jakarta Tower in Indonesia, the Confederation Bridge in Prince Edward Island and the CN Tower in Toronto.
The BLWTL is currently testing the Strait of Messina Bridge in Italy, which will be the longest suspension bridge in the world (3.3 km main span) connecting the eastern tip of Sicily to the southern tip of mainland Italy.
Last week, the group put a model of the World Trade Centre PATH Terminal in New York to the test. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the four-level transit hub resembling the shape of a dove’s wings will be built at Ground Zero as the access to the subway system.
Averaging about 40-50 projects a year, “there are quite a few structures in the world that have Western’s stamp on it,” King says.
With new advances in wind engineering at Western through the WindEEE Dome and The Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes, King foresees new ways for BLWTL to participate in cross-disciplinary research.
“A lot of people think that the wind tunnel has gone about as far as it can. I’m not one that buys into that. I think we are going to be discovering all kinds of new areas that the existing facility can be used for and ask new questions that can develop and grow in different directions,” he says.
BLWTL’s engineers have developed many of the wind engineering standard methods that are universally used.
“It has been a privilege to work here with the team of excellent researchers and practitioners that Dr. Davenport gathered around him,” King says. “Just to work on these cutting-edge projects all around the world has been extremely rewarding.”