Thanks to a £200,000 donation from Civil Engineering alumnus Chris O’Dea, Imperial can begin to tackle an important engineering challenge that has come into public awareness following the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.

Named after O’Dea’s architectural cladding firm, the new Techrete Lectureship in Façade Engineering will create an opportunity to research the systems we use to form the outside skin of buildings, and to introduce façade engineering to undergraduates. The new lecturer will seek ways to improve the performance of cladding systems so that they help to provide an optimal environment within the building, resisting rain, wind and fire, while looking good and perhaps even helping to clean up pollution.

Nick Buenfeld is Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Professor of Concrete Structures at Imperial. He explains: “If you’re building a house you will probably make it out of bricks, but if you’re building something larger, it is usually constructed with a frame which is then covered in a façade. Façades are one of the most expensive and risky elements of a large building. This is a really important area but, surprisingly, there is very little academic research on façades.”

The new lectureship comes at a pivotal moment in the department. Earlier this year, the College announced the launch of the Imperial Centre for Infrastructure Materials. This £5.4 million Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded centre will work to improve building materials, making new constructions more sustainable, economic and durable.

Professor Buenfeld continues: “The new lecturer will benefit enormously from the Centre, which will be opening up in the second half of 2018. We have a strong reputation for our expertise in structural engineering, for example, in how we design and build frames and bridges, as well as in formulating better materials, especially concrete. This new focus on façade engineering will perfectly complement those two areas.”

This funding has acted as a spur to get Imperial more focused on façade engineering, helping us to tackle this important unmet need."

Professor Nick Buenfeld

Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Professor Buenfeld is poised to begin recruiting the new lecturer, but says it could be challenging: “It will be tricky to find excellent candidates because there are so few people currently working in this area in academia. I think our best bet will be someone who trained in civil engineering and then worked in façade engineering, perhaps as a consultant. Chris O’Dea will help here, with his unparalleled industry knowledge.”

What exactly the new lecturer researches will depend on their capabilities and interests, but Professor Buenfeld says that the Grenfell Tower tragedy raises some important research challenges. Other opportunities include developing façades that are self-cleaning or can absorb carbon dioxide from the air. The new lecturer might also investigate how to reduce the carbon footprint of cladding systems. This could include reducing the amount of cement used in concrete, with cement production being one of the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions.

Professor Buenfeld expects that the new role will encourage existing staff who are working in structural engineering, building physics and materials science to collaborate on new façade engineering research projects, and sees potential for a Master’s course on the subject. In the meantime, civil engineering students at Imperial will begin to benefit from learning about façade engineering in far greater detail than elsewhere.

He adds: “This funding has acted as a spur to get Imperial more focused on façade engineering, helping us to tackle this important unmet need. With the developments in research and teaching that result from it, this funding will have an impact on the way future buildings look and behave.”