A concrete foundation 

By Karen Herland

BCEE Assistant Professor Lucia Tirca, pictured under one of the Pall friction dampers supporting the EV Building. Magnifying glass

BCEE Assistant Professor Lucia Tirca, pictured under one of the Pall friction dampers supporting the EV Building.

When Lucia Tirca was a child living in a condominium outside of Bucharest, Romania, her home was shaken by an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale.

"I thought there was an explosion, the windows all smashed," she recalls. "With my child's mind, I remember thinking 'is nobody able to do something to the building to help it stand up?'"

Years later and miles away, that is exactly what Tirca does. She’s applying her knowledge in both theoretical and concrete ways to make buildings safer.

She credits that frightening childhood incident with setting her on the path of structural engineering. Her research is specifically addressing ways to help buildings withstand seismic pressures, involving both structural and material considerations. She joined Concordia's Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering as an Assistant Professor last July.

Tirca has high praise for the professors with whom she studied and the knowledge they were able to share with her. During her PhD she was awarded a predoctoral JSPS fellowship (Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science), held in Tokyo and several visiting researcher fellowships held at different universities in Europe. After completing her PhD studies, she took a professorship in Bucharest.

But she is not one to shy away from shaking things up in her own life. She decided to start all over again here in Montreal in 2001, with a post-doctoral position at École Polytechnique and then in private industry, using her expertise in stabilizing buildings at Canadian engineering firms CANAM and GENIVAR.

One of her projects was to establish the most efficient way to turn the 10-storey industrial building at the corner of St. Laurent and Ontario into earthquake-safe condominiums. She found a way to save money by upgrading the building instead of redoing the foundations and support columns. To do so, she developed a design method and employed the friction dampers developed by engineering innovator Avtar Pall while he was doing PhD research in the BCEE department in the '70s. The alumnus' method has had widespread use. In fact, the diagonal braces with Pall friction damper pillars are featured in the LB building design.

"It's a mandatory step in the building design process to consider seismic loads. Structures shall be designed to be safe and serviceable during their useful life.”

Coming to the city where Pall, who has been a great influence on her field, studied was initially a coincidence. But, she decided to shake things up again last year and leave private industry to return to academia. "I didn't have too much time to do research, or reading or to keep up with the field. I missed them."

Ironically, her new offices are only a block away from her old ones, but the context is entirely new. She is supervising/co-supervising three masters' students, with three more starting by next September. She is currently teaching two undergraduate courses, but she has had two graduate level courses accepted to be taught in coming years. She’s a member of the Council of the School of Graduate Studies and is glad for the opportunity to teach and do research while sharing her knowledge.

Tirca hopes to help her students learn to think about how structures behave under various loads aside from equations.

"I like to tell my students that doing research is not a straightforward process and I remind them of one of Einstein’s quotes, 'imagination is more important than knowledge.'"

She sees changes within the field as well. "When I was an undergrad, 10% of the students were women. Now, it's double that." She acknowledges that most women are attracted to environmental engineering, saying women in the structural engineering field constituted only 3% of participants at the last conference she attended.

But the changes are coming. In fact, she sat on the faculty's first all-woman thesis defense committee with Maria Elektorowitz, Michelle Nokken and Judith Patterson (Geography, Urban Planning and Environment, as the external member).


Concordia University