Engineers from FPL and the VA Inspect 134-Year-Old Milwaukee Medical Center Building

The first building in what is now the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center (VAMC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was originally approved for construction by President Abraham Lincoln just one month before the end of the Civil War, for the care of disabled soldiers. That structure was completed in 1869.

Originally called the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and nicknamed the “Old Main,” the Zablocki VAMC now consists of 20 buildings.

Adam Senalik, FPL Engineer, visually inspecting the studs of a wall on the top floor of Building 7 at the Zablocki VAMC.

Last week, it was time for an inspection of Building 7 – the Soldiers’ Home. Like Buildings 2 and 5, it was built as a barracks for soldiers receiving care at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home. Consisting of three stories and a large basement foundation, the Soldier’s Home, designed by celebrated architect Henry Koch, was ready for business in 1888. Building 7 now supports the offices of the Compensated Work Therapy Department. New IT requirements require the VAMC to update the structural integrity of some of the older buildings.

Bob Ross, FPL Engineer, investigating the structural members in the wall system on the top floor of building 7. Note that the outer layers of the wall have been removed to expose the structural members.

To that end, Forest Products Laboratory Research General Engineers Bob Ross and Adam Senalik took the 90-minute drive to Milwaukee to join Erik Billstrom, on-site engineer for the VA, to carry out the necessary structural analyses.

Erik Billstrom, VA engineer, examines a large white pine timber in the high ceiling of the basement maintenance room and finds he is easily able to remove wood samples by hand.

According to Bob and Adam, FPL regularly receives requests for structural condition assessments, mostly dealing with historic wood structures, structural assessment, inspection, and assignment of allowable design values.

“We usually try to provide direct assistance to other Federal agencies and Departments,” said Bob. “This is especially true for the DoD and Veterans’ Administration.

“What matters most here,” added Bob, “is that this campus does good things for veterans.” The Zablocki VAMC serves more than 64,000 U.S. veterans every year.

Bob added that the book he coauthored, Wood and Timber Condition Assessment Manual, now in its second edition, summarizes structural condition assessment research currently used for wood and timber structures. The publication can be found at:  https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/fplgtr/fpl_gtr234.pdf.  A previous FPL LabNotes article provides a summary of the manual here:  https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/labnotes/?p=4599.

Bob Ross reveals a deteriorated nail from the basement ceiling

Starting on the third floor of building 7, the three engineers began to examine the condition of the walls and ceiling.

“It’s in pretty bad shape,” said Adam. “But about what we expected.” Previous engineering analyses had found that the structural beams were not designed for heavy weight. 

The group then climbed up into the dark attic above the third floor and removed a few samples of wood. The blackened strips of wood appeared as if they had been in a fire.

“Maybe they were at one time,” observed Bob. “Further analysis will tell us.”

Satisfied with their inspection and the samples they had acquired, the analysts moved down to the utility room on the basement level. Here, the late 19th-century origins of the building were even more apparent, with period arches and a brick wall that had survived more than a century of water damage. The wall appeared not unlike a medieval dungeon in its heavily “blurred” condition.

Erik set up and climbed a tall step ladder to examine a large white pine timber across the ceiling of the basement. He reached in and was able to effortlessly lift spacers out of the surrounding structure. Finally, the three engineers placed all their gathered samples into large, labeled plastic bags.

“It was a good inspection,” Adam concluded. “I only hope that this building can be saved.”

More to the Story – From Forgotten to the Doors of the Capitol of Democracy

FPL’s vintage lumber arrives in Washington D.C. and is unloaded by the skilled carpenters of the Architect of the Capitol. Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol

Robert Ross & Shayne Martin USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory

A year ago, the Forest Products Laboratory staff received a unique request.

That request came through a relationship built on cooperative research between the Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). This connection resulted in an amazing story of a 3,000-lb stack of legacy mahogany and other vintage lumber of incalculable value being used in the restoration of many historical wood objects at the U.S. Capitol building.

While our country reflects on the attack of January 6, 2021, which resulted in the damage or destruction of many treasured historical artifacts, we also reflect on the story of the wood used to repair what was thought to be irreplaceable. That story shone as a bright light and sign of hope in an otherwise dark situation.

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FPL Scientists’ Work on Moldable Wood Is Featured on the Cover of Science

The article “Lightweight Strong Moldable Wood Via Cell Wall Engineering as a Sustainable Structural Material,” coauthored by Forest Products Laboratory research scientists Junyong Zhu, Vina Yang, and Marco Lo Ricco, with lead author Prof. Liangbing Hu at the University of Maryland-College Park, was published in the Oct. 22, 2021 issue of Science Magazine as the cover article.

“In this work,” the article states, “we demonstrate how cell wall engineering can render wood foldable and moldable while simultaneously improving its mechanical properties – endowing wood with a structural versatility previously limited to plastics and metals.”

The Moldable Wood issue of Science
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FPL Sends Historic Legacy Mahogany to Help Restore U.S. Capitol

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, the U.S. Capitol building was the target of an attack that left it ransacked and vandalized. The destruction of many irreplaceable historical wooden artifacts and objects, including doors, intricate millwork, moldings, desks, and podiums, was extensive.

Enter Nathan Kamprath, U.S. Army DEVCOM and leader of a current joint project between the Department of Defense (DoD) and Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). Recognizing the significance of the damage, Kamprath contacted FPL research engineer Robert Ross for assistance with the U.S. Capitol repair. He then connected Ross with Architect of the Capitol (AOC) historic preservation specialists overseeing the restoration of the U.S. Capitol building. 

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FPL Researcher Featured in Engineering News-Record

A rendering of the 25-story Ascent building currently under construction in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo credit: Korb + Associates
Laura Hasburgh
Building and Fire Sciences
Materials Research Engineer

Engineering News-Record recently featured Forest Products Laboratory’s (FPL) materials research engineer, Laura Hasburgh and her expert consultation on the Ascent construction project in Milwaukee. At 25 stories, the Ascent building is making history as the soon-to-be tallest timber building in the world. And because of its unprecedented height and exposed mass timber interior, Hasburgh was contacted to lend her fire testing expertise.

The top eighteen floors of the Ascent will be framed in mass timber and the interior architectural design features exposed glued-laminated timber (glulam) framing and cross-laminated timber (CLT) slabs to showcase the natural beauty of the wood. But with these design and material choices, the Ascent’s fire safety planning needed to be carefully considered.

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