Wind tunnel officially takes its place in history

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Peter King vividly recalls being a high school student and touring Western’s Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory (BLWTL) in the late 1960s. Little did he know, that spark of interest generated what would be the start of a four-decade career within one of the university’s premier facilities.

“I spent two weeks at the wind tunnel and said, ‘Boy, this is pretty good,’” said the BLWTL Consulting Director, and former Research Director, who then witnessed the testing of, among other legendary structures, the CN Tower. “It was amazing. That really picqued my interest.”

For the last half century, the facility has been garnering the interest of thousands of researchers around the world.

In recent weeks, two organizations have celebrated the facility’s historic significance as the BLWTL has been recognized as both a National Historic Site by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and an International Historic Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Engineering Dean Andy Hrymak said there are likely thousands of alumni around the world who work in, or have seen, iconic buildings or driven across bridges around the world that were tested in BLWTL, but never knew the connection to Western.

“The designation very much, I think, honours Western University as the genesis of the modern tools of wind engineering, largely due to the vision of professor Alan Davenport. Carried out by him, his colleagues and students over many years – the work continues to this day,” said Hrymak, who started at Western the same month Davenport died in 2009.

“I had been very much looking forward to meeting him – he is a legend in civil engineering, not only for wind engineering but also his vision for buildings that were resilient to natural disasters. Wind Wizard is an excellent book about his life and contributions.”

The Canadian Society for Civil Engineering has selected more than 60 sites across Canada deemed historically significant. In London, the Egerton Double Sewer and Blackfriars Bridge also make the list.

To date, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has branded more than 200 projects worldwide with the designation of International Historic Landmark, recognizing historically significant local, national, and international civil engineering projects, structures and sites.

Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Michael Bartlett, who played a role in the nomination process, said while the actual building is “quite unremarkable,” it’s what happens within its walls that stands out.

“In 1965, the wind tunnel was the first boundary layer wind tunnel designed to test civil engineering structures by subjecting them to dynamic and turbulent wind. So, the design of the wind tunnel has historic significance,” he said, noting the wording for the historical plaque, to be erected later this year.

It reads: Its staff of engineers, researchers, and students conduct ground-breaking studies that quantify the effects of dynamic wind action on structures, accounting for wind climate data and the influence of terrain. The Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory developed the science of wind engineering, contributing to the overall reliability and economy of civil engineering structures across Canada and around the world.

Bartlett added within the Civil Engineering profession – and not just in Canada but internationally, the scope and significance of the work done at the BLWTL is well known.  Again, this goes back to the pioneering work of Davenport, he said.

“I met Alan for the first time when he interviewed me as a member of the Civil Engineering appointments committee – I remember being a little frightened going into the interview but his good nature and charm were wonderfully reassuring and the interview went reasonably well,” Bartlett said. “One of Alan’s many talents was an ability to communicate genuinely with virtually anyone he met – his natural curiosity made him extremely effective at getting useful information from anyone he encountered.”

Bartlett noted the Institute of Civil Engineers in England was also recognized by the ASCE as an International Civil Engineering Historic Landmark at the same time as the BLWTL. In the past, they have recognized the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris and the Fritz Engineering Laboratory at Lehigh University.

“We are in pretty good company,” Bartlett said.

At the time construction was completed in 1965, the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory (Phase I) – conceived and founded by then-Civil Engineering professors Davenport and Jim W. Stewart – was the first-ever boundary layer wind tunnel designed to test civil engineering structures.

With no comparable facilities in the world, Davenport was recruited as a wind consultant by the structural engineering firm involved in the design of the World Trade Center Towers.

Initial wind studies on models of the towers were conducted at the Meteorological Wind Tunnel at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., with comparison tests conducted at the National Physical Laboratory in England. Though these wind tunnel facilities were state-of-the-art, the studies exposed their deficiencies to undertake pioneering structural wind engineering research.

Davenport felt it was necessary to design a wind tunnel allowing for important inclusions such as the meteorology of the wind in the environment of the proposed structure.

Once opened at Western, Davenport began testing structures in realistic wind conditions, in a scaled simulation of the boundary layer (the section of the atmosphere where the velocity of the wind increases with height and the air is turbulent), sparking the development of wind engineering science as it is studied and applied today.

In 1984, the university constructed a second tunnel within the same building. This addition allowed wind testing to be ramped up significantly, doubling the maximum wind speed of the original tunnel to 100 mph (160 km/h). It includes a wind/wave tank of 170 feet (52 m) in length.

From its start, more than 2,000 studies have been conducted at the lab including a long list of remarkable buildings such as the Willis Tower in Chicago (formerly the Sears Tower); Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong; Shanghai World Financial Center Towers; Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; Valencia Opera House in Spain; and Canary Wharf Complex in London, England.

Notable bridges include the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in New York; Tsing Ma Bridge in Hong Kong; Confederation Bridge joining New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island; Paso del Alamillo Bridge in Seville, Spain; and A. Murray MacKay Bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In recent years, King said they even turned the testing on itself with the news of the construction of the new Engineering building along Western Road. With the low-lying location of the wind tunnel, and concerns of the strong north-easterly winds whipping around the new Three C+ engineering building, there were concerns something as simple as opening the doors may be a struggle. But not to worry, said King.

“We passed the test,” he said.

The dedication of the historic plaque and the re-opening of the renovated wind tunnel will be planned for later this fall.

*   *   *


  • Western’s Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory was recently recognized as both a National Historic Site by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and an International Historic Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
  • Conceived and founded by Civil Engineering professor Alan G. Davenport, the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory was designed by Davenport and Engineering professor Jim W. Stewart. Phase 1 construction began in the spring of 1965, with an opening ceremony on Nov. 25, 1965;
  • Phase 1 is 100 feet (30 m) long, 8 feet (2.4 m) wide and has an adjustable roof to achieve a height between 5.5-7.5 feet (1.7-2.3 m). A large fan generates wind with a maximum speed of 55 mph (88 km/h);
  • Phase 2, opened in May 1984, is a closed-circuit wind tunnel with a maximum wind speed of 100 mph (160 km/h). It includes a wind/wave tank of 170 feet (52 m) in length that can be converted to a dry testing section;
  • The boundary layer wind tunnels are so named because the layer of wind closest to Earth’s atmosphere (approximately the first 1,000 metres) is known as the boundary layer;
  • Nearly 200 students have completed graduate work at the lab; and
  • Western’s Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory has been the design inspiration for many wind tunnels in Canada and around the world.