A Structure Life in an NSF Center

February 25, 2008

It's easy to picture Antonio Nanni, Ph.D. '85, as a boy in his native Bologna, Italy, wide-eyed and mesmerized by the majestic buildings and bridges around him. "To me, these structures are where people express their ability to master nature," says Nanni, chair of the UM Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering since 2006.

Nanni has spent his life mastering the forces of nature. Light, strong, corrosion-resistant mixtures of materials called composites have been the foundation of his efforts since the early 1990s, when he was on the faculty at Penn State University. There, he took an 18-month sabbatical to work for a Japanese construction company, testing whether DuPont Kevlar fibers could strengthen concrete. "It convinced me that the opportunity was in repair and rehabilitation rather than in new construction."

Nanni, who has a penchant for exotic locales, attended graduate school in South Africa before being lured to Miami for his Ph.D. during the city's sexy Miami Vice years with his wife, Valeria, A.B. '89. He accepted a faculty position in the UM College of Engineering, then went to Penn State for nine years and the University of Missouri-Rolla for another nine before returning to Miami. "One of the things that attracted me back here is the fact that the University has a School of Architecture-and it's a prominent School of Architecture," says Nanni. "Maybe this is my Italian Renaissance style, but I believe in the master builder. A master builder is neither engineer nor architect; it's a person who understands both."

Using composites to revive outdated structures is another product of Nanni's European background,"a culture based on preservation and conservation." He practices what he preaches as director of Repair of Buildings and Bridges with Composites, or RB2C. This NSF-funded research center at the College of Engineering takes on projects like strengthening the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys, hardening structures to withstand terrorist attacks, and retrofitting buildings so they can adapt to the changing needs of society. "A structure is alive," he asserts. "The fact that you've built it does not mean the process is complete."

It is through RB2C that Nanni became a consultant last year on what will be the world's tallest skyscraper-the 2,300-plus-foot-tall Burj Dubai. From there he connected with the principals of the wind-engineering firm RWDI and forged a relationship that has spawned Miami Wind. The University will use this new 10,000-square-foot wind tunnel in Broward County to test wind pressures on models of structures. Just like that boy in Italy, Nanni becomes wide-eyed when talking about a skyscraper twice the height of the Empire State Building-a true mastery of nature. Still, he cautions against creating "cathedrals in the desert," simply because we have the know-how.

"Engineering and architecture also have to look at the human dimension," he says. "As we embrace technology and push it to the limit, we cannot forget that there are human beings who need to live and work there."

Reprinted with permission from Miami magazine, the alumni publication for the University of Miami.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2020, its budget is $8.3 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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