Lighting the Way for Structural Resistance to Fire

Young faculty helps shape emerging field within structural engineering


Spencer Quiel research

Assistant professor Spencer Quiel is not a firefighter, but part of his job serves to keep fires from causing severe damage to our buildings and bridges.

In developing engineering tools and techniques to enhance structural resistance to fire, Quiel is bringing a new perspective to the field, and to Lehigh research that supports our global infrastructure.

Quiel completed his Ph.D. at Princeton in 2009 in structural engineering, specifically in fire resistance and the mitigation of resulting damage. Following his dissertation, he spent four years in Washington D.C as an engineering consultant for protective design of structures. Though he enjoyed his time in practice, he became increasingly interested in merging the state-of-the-art in structural resistance to blast, impact, fire, etc. with the current state-of-practice. By 2013, he began to pursue that goal as a new member of Lehigh's storied structural engineering research program, and as a member of the civil and environmental engineering faculty.

"Considering the impact of fire loading on structures is something that is relatively new," he explained. "Structural engineers typically don't include fire load as part of their scope when designing a building or a bridge."

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), who publishes many of the load requirement documents for structural design, is in the initial stages of incorporating fire hazard mitigation standards as an element of structural engineering codes. Quiel serves on the ASCE committee that is currently developing the chapter which will be included in the upcoming version of the load requirement document.

"I'm excited to be part of a field that is just starting to take shape," he says. "For example, bridge cables weaken when they are subjected to fire. The data that is currently used in the industry to model their response to high temperature is 50 years old. To bring these models up to date, my lab is experimentally investigating the response of modern steel cable types to fire loading, with the goal of using that data as input for our computational models."

Quiel is focused on providing students with an opportunity to contribute to his projects. Two of his graduate students are currently working on the aforementioned bridge-fire project, while three others are focused on progressive collapse resistance and blast resistance for buildings. He also advised two undergraduate students during the 2014-15 academic year who were performing research with his group, and he is currently serving as a faculty mentor for a Mountaintop Experience project this summer.

"We have been starting with some of the industry standard modeling approaches, many of which I've used in practice, and are investigating better ways to do it, with improvements that we can make or limitations that we need to identify," he said.

Quiel also contributes to a broader Lehigh research team on a project that delves into multi-hazard structural resistance. The team is seeking new ways to strengthen structural resilience in the face of a natural or man-made disaster.

"We are trying to develop structural resistance to hazards in general, including earthquakes, wind, blast - essentially anything that could take a building out of commission," he explained. "Although it is impossible to engineer a structure to completely withstand all extreme events or some combinations of extreme events, the goal is to minimize damage and allow for relatively quick, inexpensive, and safe repair."

"As a structural engineer," he said, "it's exciting to be at Lehigh, with access to ATLSS, one of the biggest testing facilities in the world. You can think up and test approaches to problems that just wouldn't be possible at other universities."

Hear more about Quiel's research in his own words:

—Brenda Martinez, '15

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