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NEES@UCLA assists in monitoring structural soundness of the historic Watts Towers




NEES@UCLA research is attracting plenty of media attention with its high-profile project monitoring the structural health of the Watts Towers, a designated National and California Historic Landmark located in South Los Angeles.

Working on the project are Ertugrul Taciroglu, PI, with UCLA Civil and Environmental Engineering & Bob Nigbor, with NEES@UCLA.

Photo: Wikimedia commonsUCLA Civil Engineering and NEES@UCLA, with National Science Foundation and NEES support, are collaborating with Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in an interdisciplinary study of this iconic monument. The structure is a collection of 17 artistic steel towers constructed by folk artist Simon Rodia from 1921 to 1954. The towers vary in height; the tallest ones rise as high as 30 meters.

Principal Investigator Ertugrul Taciroglu and engineers from NEES@UCLA will spend a year gathering data to help preservationists understand the degradation of these historic structures to help the museum devise a long-term conservation plan. The long-term plan will include advanced structural health monitoring.

Italian immigrant Simon Rodia crafted the towers in his back yard over a period of 32 years, during evenings and weekends, finishing in 1954. Using only basic tools and manual labor, he incorporated a variety of materials including steel, cement, glass, ceramics and found objects.

Chief among conservation concerns are cracks that have plagued the towers for many decades. The most serious cracks are at the base of the towers, although degradation is evident throughout the 100-foot towers and smaller structures. Engineers from NEES@UCLA have placed sensors on the central tower to measure variables such as acceleration, tilt, crack displacement, wind, and temperature. Tilt sensors are provided on loan by NEES@Minnesota. High-resolution digital data are recorded continuously 24/7 on site, and data can be viewed and interrogated remotely through the internet.

Analysis by PI Ertugrul Taciroglu, NEES engineers, graduate students, and undergraduate NEES REU interns will attempt to determine the main cause of the cracking, with potential culprits being wind, earthquake, air temperature, and differential solar heating. Experimentally validated computer models of the structures will be developed to aid development of long-term mitigation and health monitoring strategies.

Tower sensor. Photo by Bob Nigbor, NEES@UCLAAnalyses of the data will be reported to LACMA and the National Science Foundation and the data set will be made available through NEEShub. The study is expected to be completed by early 2014.

Ultimately, the work may prove valuable in the preservation of other public artworks. The engineering effort is funded by the National Science Foundation through a RAPID grant, award number CMMI-1331299 and is augmented by NEES O&M resources under NSF award number CMMI-0927178.