Engineering grad student places second in international competition

Most people don’t take into consideration what temperature the structural steel inside their house was formed in, or its strength capability, but UW engineering master’s student Colin Van Niejenhuis has recently reinforced his knowledge in cold-formed steel design.

Van Niejenhuis recently placed second in the 2013 International Student Competition on Cold-Formed Steel Design, and said that his experience at UW was crucial in his understanding of cold-formed steel and his recent design achievement.

“I was interested in learning more about cold-formed steel design, and during my masters I took CIVE 604: Advanced structural steel design,” he said.  “About half of the course dealt with cold-formed steel, and we learned a lot about this topic.”

Cold-formed steel differs from common heat-formed steel as it is formed, or “rolled,” at room temperature. The steel comes in large rectangular cubes or bars known as “billets,” which are “rolled out” or shaped by a set of rollers that stretch and form the steel into shape. It is used in building houses, or structural frames, and is ideal for replacing wood products used for structural support, as wood products can warp depending on the climate. Van Niejenhuis said that cold-formed steel is nothing new, and that it was introduced for commercial use in the 1970s, especially in homes in the southern U.S. where moisture can affect wooden materials.

“In traditional wood-frame houses, when moisture gets in the wall you’re going to have rot, [and] you’re going to have mold build-up, so they [U.S.] have started to go to more of the cold-formed steel. Up here we have tighter restrictions on moisture, so it’s a little different.”

Regardless of building code restrictions, cold-formed steel is ideal for replacing wooden materials used for structures that may warp, or deform over time, or under certain conditions.

“We have tighter restrictions up here, but people are starting to use it as opposed to timber, because you don’t get warped, [or] imperfect structural members.”

Not only is cold-formed steel an ideal replacement for wooden structural support, it is easy to package and transport, as well as being economically efficient.

“Hot-rolled steel is too expensive, and it’s too heavy, so it’s not going to replace those smaller stud frame[s]. This way, you can get economical strength-to-weight ratios, [and] easy, light transportation and packaging.”

Van Niejenhuis said that his co-op experience was the best part of his structural engineering experience.

“I found the best part of it was being in the co-op program because you take something you learn and you apply it right away. When I was out in the field, I was designing like a full-fledged engineer,” he said.

Van Niejenhuis spent a co-op term at Barry Bryan Associates, where he worked hand-in-hand with various architects and project managers with the complete building analysis and construction.

“As long as that’s what you’re interested in, it gives you a lot of field experience.”

Van Niejenhuis said that there was no actual event being held for the competition, and that it consisted of a panel of professors and cold-formed steel producers throughout the U.S. He does welcome the idea of travelling, however, as there are few Canadian schools that offer research opportunities in this area of structural engineering.

“In Canada, there might be two universities that actually teach this cold-formed steel product.”

He credits UW professors Dr. Reinhold Schuster and Dr. Lei Xu as being heavy contributors to cold-formed steel research, including one of Van Neijenhuis’ textbooks. It was during his CIVE 604 course that Dr. Xu asked Van Niejenhuis and other students to take part in the competition.

“Dr. Xu and Dr. Schuster were, I would say, the big names in cold-formed steel over the last 20 years. I have a textbook that [Dr. Xu] and another guy exclusively wrote, which is almost like the cold-form bible, so they really know what they’re doing around here.”

Dr. Xu, a civil and environmental engineering professor, says that to enter a competition of this type grad students must have a strong background in structural engineering, as well as practical and critical thinking.

He also says that Van Niejenhuis’ passion and dedication for this unchartered area of structural design is what may have contributed to his recent achievement.

“I taught him in the structural steel design course, and he was always sitting at the front, with a lot of questions,” said Xu. “He showed extreme interest in cold-formed steel design and he is working very hard on this, and he loves it.”

The area of cold-formed steel design has been growing for the past 30 years, but few universities offer graduate programs, and research opportunities.

Engineering grad students, like Van Niejenhuis, who are looking to enter the frontier of structural engineering may be interested in cold-formed design.

“There [are] only few universities offering the course,” said Xu. “There’s a shortage of competent engineers.”