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Peter Irwin: Mastering the wind

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 31, 2014 3:43 am    Post subject: Peter Irwin: Mastering the wind Reply with quote

Peter Irwin: Mastering the wind
Inspired by earlier studies in aeronautical engineering, he turned to wind loads when he arrived in the structural engineering field.
Maureen Foody

Peter Irwin with Florida International University colleagues at the University's new Wall of Wind in 2013. Irwin now splits his time between RWDI and FIU.
On its sum, Peter Irwin's career is as flowing as his favorite subject – the wind. Inspired by planes, he traversed the Atlantic to study and explore the subject of wind and buildings, ultimately helping develop new wind load calculation techniques and some of the structures most affected by wind.
It all started in England.

Born in 1945, Irwin grew up as the dust settled from WWII, though he often moved as his father, Hamlyn, was in the military and served as a fighter pilot in WWII.
"I had always admired what he had done so when he suggested to me that I go into aeronautical engineering I didn't question it," Irwin says.

Irwin attended the University of Southampton, England, to continue on this path while also signing up for a sandwich course to work for Bristol Siddelely Engines, an aircraft engine company in Bristol, England, that is now a part of Rolls Royce.

"I did that apprenticeship work, learning what goes on in that industry at the structural levels and different design aspects," he says.

Upon completion of his bachelor's degree, Irwin decided to continue on for a master's degree instead of continuing his work in Bristol. After graduation, Irwin went to work for the British Royal Aircraft Establishment in 1969.

Peter Irwin and Stoyan Stoyanoff of RWDI during wind tunnel testing of full aeroelastic models of the twin Tacoma Narrows bridges.
"Most of my time was spent doing research on aerodynamics, focusing on wings with high lift devices," he says. Irwin also began an important correspondence with Barry Newman of McGill University in Canada.

Crossing the pond
After discussions with his new wife, Clare, both decided that before they would settle down they wanted to travel, so Irwin pursued the opportunity of studying under Newman to pursue a Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering, earned in 1974.

"After I finished my degree, I had the idea that I knew I wanted to keep researching. Both my wife and I wanted to stay in Canada as well so I started a position at the National Research Council in Ottawa," says Irwin, who credits the experience of researching aeronautics and wind engineering as foundational lessons on how to interact with design and engineering professionals.

For six years Irwin continued this research of high winds on large structures, from bridges to buildings. "I was very interested in the projects I was working on... discovering the different effects of wind loading and turbulence led to some fairly groundbreaking work," he says.

Crossing from research to consulting
A small company in Guelph, ON, called MHTR soon approached Irwin, seeking him to consult on the wind effects on buildings but also snow-loading on buildings and how these factors impacted the usability of structures.

"It was a definite change to go from a research position to a consultant," Irwin says. "I had only just started to develop into a good consultant, thanks to the opportunities afforded to me from the National Research Council, by working with so many different designers, engineers, and other professionals."

Peter Irwin made Fellow of the Engineering Institute of Canada. From left to right: Bill Rowan, (first president of RWDI), Rose Soligo, Michael Soligo (current and third president of RWDI), Clare Irwin, Peter Irwin (second president of RWDI), Bob Wardlaw (Peter Irwin's former boss at the National Research Council of Canada), and Jane Wardlaw.
Two years after the initial contact, in 1980 Morrison, Hershfield, Theakston & Rowan Limited, or MHTR, invited him to join their firm.

"They actually approached me to ask if I'd go out to Edmonton and run a new office they were establishing. I had zero experience doing that, as my background was entirely research," Irwin says. He declined the management position and went directly into testing a wide variety of challenging projects.
"At the National Research Council I had developed a Wind Velocity Sensor, which was a special device for measuring wind speeds around buildings and bridges. I took it to MHTR and eventually it became a widespread tool and I found that other people in the industry were calling it the Irwin Sensor," Irwin says.

Becoming a wind powerhouse
Originally MHTR was very small, with close to 15 employees, but it grew quickly from there.

"Our range has expanded quite a bit, as we began to do a lot of work on taller buildings. During the recession of the 1980s, we decided as a company that we had to have a range of services in order to remain successful," Irwin says. This led to MHTR becoming Rowan, Williams, Davies & Irwin Consulting Engineers, or more commonly RWDI.

The firm, and Irwin, have been involved in some very significant projects.

One particular favorite is the Alex Fraser Bridge, the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world when it opened in 1986. Irwin is quick to credit the good faith that Buckland & Taylor, the primary engineers on the project, had to reach out to the small firm to handle the wind engineering.
"There were so many challenges to that bridge during the construction that we were able to solve in the wind tunnel. Those solutions were subsequently applied to a number of bridges in America over the next decade as well," Irwin says.

Peter Irwin and colleagues from RWDI with wind tunnel model of the top portion of the Burj Khalifa.
Another major bridge project was the remarkable Skarnsund Bridge, which crosses Skarnsundet sound in Inderøy, Norway. "Even though the bridge was 530 meters long it was only 13 meters wide, which was a great challenge," Irwin says.

RWDI also did tremendous work on tall buildings in the 1990s, such as the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; the Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan; and later on the Burj Khalifa, which currently stands as tallest man-made structure in the world. But Irwin didn't just think vertically as he was deeply involved in figuring out the puzzling SkyDome, now known as Rogers Centre, in Toronto. The problem was figuring out the snow loading on a 200-meter roof, which also was retractable.

"This was in the 1980s, when there was no established method to predict the snow loading aside from the provisions in building codes, a smaller scale than we needed, so we had to scratch our heads for quite a while before we came up with a new method, which we called the finite area element method," Irwin says. "We divided the roof into smaller area elements and then used the wind tunnel method to determine the wind velocity energy over the roof combined with information on how snow drifts. Then we used a computer program, which combined all this information in a system we developed."

In 1995, the National Building Code of Canada started using the findings as a measure for the new manufacturing and warehouse facilities with very large surface area roofs that were being built in these environments.

Irwin continued studying and developing these ideas, publishing a paper that led to receiving the Gzowski Medal for outstanding achievement in civil engineering.
Currently Irwin serves on the CEO's advisory committee and chairs the RWDI Technical Development committee, where he continues to develop new techniques and software.
Irwin still serves as a project consultant on special projects, while also remaining active on the Canadian Building Code's committee for structural design since the early 1990s.

The business side of things
Despite all the amazing wind research Irwin has done, he also had lofty business goals at RWDI.
"I always knew I had an interest in that side of the business but I had no skills or experience," he says. "I am sure when they first asked me to manage their new Edmonton office I would have been a very bad manager but over the years I've developed and become confident in my managing capabilities."

Irwin has more than proved himself as RWDI tripled in size with Irwin serving as CEO. Irwin also credits his father as an inspiration for having an entrepreneurial spirit, as he had once owned and operated his own small airline in the British Cameroons.

"I'd like to think that some of that probably rubbed off on me a little bit as well," Irwin says.

As Irwin has worked and lived on a number of continents, he says he really doesn't have a favorite place to work as no matter what project you're working on, the surroundings always have something to offer.
"When I am working on a project, I've always found the more you think, the more comes to mind. That pressure exists to help generate new ideas that don't simply help you meet deadlines but also helps you keep pushing yourself along with the project," Irwin says. "I recall one thing communicated to me by Barry Newman, who relayed the phrase he learned from G.I. Taylor, that ‘90 percent of good ideas come out of work already in progress,' so the important thing is to already be doing something that serves you to help breed thoughts."

Hiking in British Columbia. From left to right daughter Helen, Peter, wife Clare.

When asked for advice for others considering a career in engineering or just beginning their own career already, Irwin says, "If you're going to get good at something, you have to persist but you have to enjoy it too. If it isn't something that really gives you a kick, then you're not going to stay involved long enough for it to get really good."
Irwin exemplifies this; his years of both research and practice stand as proof.
"Be prepared to be confident behind your own abilities too," Irwin adds. "You may not have the perfect answer but if you've done enough speculations and examinations then your voice deserves to be heard."

When asked about some of his favorite memories over the years, winning the Gzowski medal was definitely a high point but there was also the Jack E. Cermak Medal, a lifetime achievement for work in wind engineering from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"Cermak was one of the two founding people in the field of wind engineering. Both Alan Davenport and Cermak were two people I had always held in great regard so when I found out I had been awarded that award it certainly meant a lot," Irwin says.

Aside from such a busy schedule, Irwin still finds time to spend his downtime with his wife, Clare, his children, and four grandchildren.
"We have a cottage on Georgian Bay where we go to relax; I can go boating, relax, and get some fresh air," he says.
A newer role for Irwin is that of professor of practice at Florida International University.
"I spend about a week a month there now, helping out and advising students and private industry projects," he says. "It's an exciting thing to see engineers who are using all these new tools and software, combining experience with what's been done before and pushing the envelope with what's possible in the now."

Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached atMaureen.t.f@gmail.com.


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