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.”

FPL Scientist and UW-Madison Bring Science and Art Together

Alex Wiedenhoeft invention contributes to new Audubon Exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art


Detail of Carolina Parrots from The Birds of America, John James Audubon. Photo courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art

Alex Wiedenhoeft has contributed so much of his hard work and knowledge to the Forest Products Laboratory in the more than 20 years he has been with us. One of his most useful inventions is the XyloTron, a desktop device that provides high-resolution images of wood.

In his effort to make the XyloTron less costly and more portable, Alex also developed the XyloPhone, a small device that attaches to a smartphone and provides the same resolution as the much larger XyloTron.

In just a few months, the Xylophone has contributed greatly to the ability of scientists in the field to identify and photograph wood. But not just wood.

Artist Emily Arthur, associate professor in the UW-Madison art department, learned about the XyloPhone through her colleague Anne Pringle, professor of Botany at UW-Madison, who studies lichens and fungi in her lab. During Emily’s ongoing collaborative research with Robin Rider, curator of special collections, Memorial Library, the XyloPhone became a way to examine rare books and works on paper.

“I knew this device would be invaluable for the purposes of this research,” said Emily Arthur. “And I was right! Being able to examine the hand-colored engravings from The Birds of America at such a detailed level has revealed new information on the printing techniques that were used in its production between 1827-1838.”


Alex Wiedenhoeft demonstrates wood identification using the XyloTron system. He also developed the XyloPhone as a smaller, more portable device that attaches to a smartphone, but with the same remarkable scanning ability. Photo by Andrew Averil, Hardwood Floors Magazine

The focus of the exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art is not just the gorgeous creations of the renowned naturalist, John James Audubon, but in particular the methods that formed a tradition of exactitude in engraving that lies behind the work of printmakers like Robert Havell, Jr.

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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 Scientist Recognized by Forests Magazine

Research Forest Products Technologist Xiping Wang has recently been announced by Forests Magazine as a winner of the Best Cover Awards for his collaboration on the cover article “Non-Destructive Evaluation Techniques and What They Tell Us about Wood Property Variation.”

“A few years ago, Laurence Schimleck, the senior author of this article, and I met at a professional conference and discussed the possibility of writing a comprehensive review paper on a range of nondestructive testing technologies for wood quality assessment, especially on standing trees in forests,” Xiping explained. “My expertise is primarily in developing acoustic wave-based technologies for wood quality evaluation. In this article, I contributed two sections: Acoustics and Pilodyn, as well as some contents in discussions and tables.”

Xiping was also the photographer for the photo chosen by Forests for its cover.

Xiping Wang’s cover photograph for Forests
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FPL Engineer Wins Industry Award

The Technical Session of the American Paper and Pulp Association, or TAPPI, has recognized one of our own, Research Chemical Engineer Carl Houtman, for its 2021 Leadership & Service Award and Joseph K. Perkins Prize.

The citations states: “This award recognizes individuals for outstanding leadership and exceptional service, resulting in significant and demonstrable benefits to the Division’s members.”

FPL Research Chemical Engineer Carl Houtman

“I’d like to thank the FPL for its support of my involvement in TAPPI,” said Carl. “I’m being honored because I was the public face in the projects. It’s the support scientists, technicians, and shop folks who’ve really made the work possible.”

Carl joined us at the Forest Products Laboratory in 1991, after earning his PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Delaware and pursuing postdoctoral study abroad. His work at FPL has focused on a wide range of complex projects in the paper industry.