“Students naturally appreciate a little showmanship”
Throughout his over 40-year career, Eugen Brühwiler strongly advocated a sustainable approach to civil engineering that prioritizes the reuse of existing structures. He retired from EPFL in late November 2023 – after being named the best teacher in the civil engineering section for 2023.
Civil engineers have always been seen as people who build new things. Their work fuels the imagination, as they make structures appear out of nowhere – “creating something where previously there was nothing.” Yet Brühwiler stresses that “this is an outdated view of our profession. And in light of the challenges posed by climate change, it’s completely untenable.”
Brühwiler, who headed tthe Structural Maintenance and Safety Laboratory (MCS) for nearly three decades, adds that “around half of global warming and its consequences can be attributed to the construction industry.” He believes that instead of building new structures, civil engineers should focus on preserving those that exist “by monitoring them and improving them as needed in a way that’s as minimally invasive as possible.”
A world first
Brühwiler’s whole career has been oriented towards what he calls “existing-structure engineering,” which entails renovating, modifying and upgrading rather than building from scratch. His concern for sustainability took root at an early age: “Shortly before I graduated from high school, I stumbled upon The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome,” he says. Reading that report opened his eyes, and he began to examine “the stress fields that existed between the prevailing societal and engineering paradigms and the environment.” He realized that “engineers are at the heart of all that.”
Brühwiler read avidly on the topic, including a book his sister gave him on concrete works in Switzerland. “That was when civil engineers first started to be concerned about the environment and rethink their approach to large infrastructure projects, like highways,” he says. “I knew right away it was something I wanted to be involved in.” He obtained a civil engineering degree from ETH Zurich and then enrolled at EPFL, where he conducted research on fatigue zones in riveted-steel bridges and the rupture mechanics of concrete dams. Brühwiler graduated from EPFL with a PhD in 1988.
In 1995, he was put in charge of the newly created MCS and ramped up his research efforts. He saw his position as “a chair in existing-structure engineering” and designed MCS to be “the first of its kind in the world.” His goal was to develop methods for inspecting existing infrastructure in order to upgrade it in a non-invasive manner and minimize the amount of construction work needed.
Students’ conservative methods
Brühwiler’s approach relies on the use of cutting-edge technology. “It’s a mistake to think that preserving existing structures means taking a conservative stance,” he explains. For example, the engineers at MCS worked with partner businesses to develop ultra-high performance fiber reinforced-concrete composites (UHPFRCs) and implement them to restore, strengthen and modify reinforced-concrete structures. “We used UHPFRCs for the first time in 2004, on a road bridge near Sion,” says Brühwiler. “And today our technology is well-known around the world.”
In fact, Brühwiler was surprised to see that it was his students who often felt more comfortable with conservative methods. “My last class asked for printed class notes and used highlighters to help them remember the most important points,” he says. In his teaching, Brühwiler tried to make his lectures “as dynamic as possible” in order to retain the students’ attention. Yet he understood things weren’t easy for them. “Given how many classes they take, they naturally appreciate a little showmanship from their professors.” In that regard, Brühwiler is clearly a talented showman, as this was the third time he’d won his section’s best teacher award.
Driving change in engineering education
Brühwiler, originally from Thurgau Canton, is a little sad to see his long teaching career draw to a close. Partly because “I’ll miss the contact and animated discussions with students,” he says. And partly because he knows that EPFL will lose its staunchest advocate of civil engineering programs that are oriented towards the reuse of existing structures. However, Brühwiler – who has no intention of resting on his laurels – has some interesting prospects on the horizon. For instance, he was appointed to the steering committee of the Swiss National Science Foundation’s National Research Programme 81, which aims to improve sustainability in the built environment. In this role, Brühwiler will continue to draw on his broad experience to support responsible methods in the construction industry.