Structurally sound - profile of Bohumil Kasal

Wood Focus magazine
,
25 Apr 2011
Bohumil Kasal

During the Cold War, Eastern Europe was a difficult place to forge a career and studying abroad was almost impossible to pursue. Professor Bohumil Kasal, Director of The Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research in Braunschweig, Germany, has, however, travelled far and wide working in the R&D of wood structures. He talks to Martin Parley.


‘I suppose it could be said I pushed the envelope in terms of using heavy timber structures in seismic areas to show this is an excellent way of executing construction in places where earthquakes are a concern’, reflects Professor Bohumil Kasal, Director of The Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research. His comments correlate with discussions about using timber in the aftermath of recent earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan.

‘It is slowly making its way into the building industry, although the innovation cycle in industry is 10-20 years. What is done today can be seen in 20 years, since it is a conservative industry,’ says Kasal. ‘You cannot introduce something revolutionary overnight as you do in computers. When you do it with a building, lives are at stake so it takes longer.’

He says there are many fundamental questions still to ask. It is not as simple as taking carbon fibre and gluing it onto a piece of wood, then using it in a structure – there are questions about creep and long-term performance behaviour in aggressive environments like salts, changing temperatures and fluctuating moistures. These are fundamental issues that need answering. ‘Once you have proved the concept, the hard part is working out the details’.

Iron Curtain

Kasal was born and raised in state-controlled Czechoslovakia where he encountered cultural and political barriers to achieving his goal of gaining a proper education.

‘Many applied to schools to be a student, but it did not [ just] depend on how good you were, but also on your family and their political views. It was difficult, at that time, to get a position if you were not part of the political establishment or did not agree with what they were doing. So my choices were somewhat limited,’ muses Kasal.

In the face of these obstacles, he gained entry to a technical college and admits that he did not plan on entering the field of wood and timber structures.

‘I thought that studying wood as a material might be an interesting topic for me. I really did not have a background in wood at all – my main goal was to get an education.’

Kasal was lucky enough to gain instruction from an experienced teacher who had designed large timber structures and buildings in Czechoslovakia.

‘I worked with him in his office and that is when I realised that it is fascinating what you can actually do with wood. At that time it was not that popular because of the fear of fire.’

Kasal began his professional career as a research engineer at the Bratislava laboratory. ‘This had excellent facilities, good buildings and scientists. I wanted to be a part of [it],’ he says, ‘I was defending my thesis about the circular arch roof, basically a shell for an ice hockey stadium, and I was offered a job on the spot.’ He worked in the physics department focusing on wood mechanics and structures. Initially he was learning all the scientific processes, designing experiments and working in the lab with the testing machines.

‘The scientists they had there had spent time in the United States and Canada. It was in the 1970s, so they were able to do that and get worldwide experience. They were my lucky years. I was there from 1980 – 1987.’

On American shores

Kasal's thirst for knowledge led him to pursue further opportunities overseas. Influenced by the experiences of his colleagues at that time, one particular senior scientist saw his potential.

‘The scientist had a colleague he knew from early years at Virginia Tech, USA, who was German. So he wrote him a letter [on my behalf ].

Accepting the place meant leaving his wife and son. ‘I landed in New York with US$150 in my pocket and a suitcase mostly of books.’

It was his first time in the USA and his English was minimal, having been self-taught and never spoken the language in college.

At Virginia Tech, Kasal completed a Master of Sciences in Wood Composites, studying the material consolidation in a hot press. ‘Not every piece of wood is the same, so it can say something about how accurate you are,’ says Kasal.

He continued his PhD at Oregon State University, USA, on seismic events and how they affect low-rise buildings. At the same time he studied Civil Engineering, gaining two degrees from Oregon State.

He worked for a private firm and then joined the North Carolina State University and received the senior Fulbright Scholarship, started by Senator J William Fulbright to promote science and cultural understanding between nations. This took him to the Technical University of Dresden in Germany.

Researchers there were conducting special projects on a combination of composites with wood and concrete. Here he tested wood composite reinforced frames.

Driving progress

While in the USA, he helped to develop the design guidelines for coastal structures. Here, houses are built on piles so that when flooding occurs, the bottom part of the building separates from the main frame, meaning the water pressure is released and building damage is prevented. Kasal and his colleagues simulated the water force in a long channel, with a steel plate at one end generating the waves hitting the experimental structure. From this work, they developed guidelines that are still used in USA coastal building design. He also did television interviews for NBC, CNN and ABC, giving expert analysis on wood structures in extreme weather conditions such as flooding and hurricanes.

‘We did the first test in Australia with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, where we fully instrumented a building on sixty load cells,’ says Kasal.

‘Then we would put specifically defined loads on the building and develop the mathematical model to predict what happens in the structure using simulations.’

A smaller study was on historic buildings, which was a US National Science Foundation project. The Foundation sent the results to the USA congress five years ago, when it was requesting US$6bln for the next year’s budget, as an example of how it spent its money.

‘It made me happy that within these high-tech materials and research, including everything from nanofibres to the space shuttle, we were there with this project that dealt with wood. So in terms of satisfaction it was good, in terms of impact on the industry, not much. It was mainly used for education and historic heritage in the sense that we can conserve historic heritage and not destroy it. We can actually repair it.’

Closer to home

With this wealth of experience, applying to be Director of The Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research was a natural step for Kasal. Since starting in October, he firmly believes that it is one of the best Institutes in Europe, if not the world, at least in terms of ‘stature, research programmes and in terms of what people know about it’.

He combines this role with that of Chair at the Technische Universitat in Braunschweig, which currently involves constructing a new research area at the university, while at the same time maintaining and building the Institute. However, this is not the only target in his sights.

‘Personally, my main challenge is the German bureaucracy. I knew this was going to be the case, but I underestimated the beast. It slows me down a lot – to sort out my personal things took days and weeks, so it is time consuming going through that. Documents are needed for everything.’

Kasal has 10-15 years before retirement, but he believes he will stay at Fraunhofer, helping students with their futures in wood research. ‘Coming back to Europe was my aim, and the combination of the University and the Institute is great – the job is excellent. I enjoy every single drop of it.’

Career highlights

1980-1987

Research Engineer, State Wood Research Laboratory, Bratislava, Department of Physics, Czechoslovakia.

1991

Wood award, Forest Products Society.

1993

Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Faculty Research and Professional Development Award, North Carolina State University, USA Wood Mechanics.

1995

Award for Excellence in Truss Research, Truss Plate Institute, Analysis and Design of Wood Trusses.

1999-2001

While at North Carolina State University, USA, he and his team developed the design guidelines for coastal structures that are still used in the USA for design of buildings in coastal areas.

2001-2002

Senior Fulbright Fellow, Fulbright Foundation, Technical University of Dresden, Germany.

2002-2003

Faculty Research and Professional Development Award (Composite Structures), North Carolina State University, USA. Television work for NBC, CNN and ABC as an expert in hurricane damage of residential light-frame buildings.

2003-2005

Professor at North Carolina State University, College of Natural Resources, Wood and Paper Science and Civil and Environmental Engineering, USA.

2004-2011

Honorary Research Associate, School of Graduate Studies, College of Forestry and Environmental Management, University of New Brunswick, USA. RILEM TC 215 Chair, Réunion International des Laboratoires et Experts des Matériaux, Systèmes de Constructions et Ouvrages, Paris, France.

2005-2010

Director, Pennsylvania Housing Research Center, Pennsylvania State University, USA. Bernard and Henrietta Hankin Chair. Professor of Architectural Engineering, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Pennsylvania State University, together with a professorship (associate status) at North Carolina State University, USA.

2009

Named a Professor at the Czech Technical University in Prague by the President of the Czech Republic.

2009-2012

Honorary Research Fellow (Civil Engineering), University of Bristol, UK.

2010

Director of The Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research, Wilhelm-Klauditz-Institut in Germany, and Professor and Chair of Organic and Wood-based Materials, Technical University in Braunscweig, Germany.

Research Areas

  • Design of wood structures.
  • Building physics.
  • Assessment of historic structures.
  • Sustainable materials and structures.
  • Analytical modelling of buildings and testing of structures subjected to natural hazard loads.
  • Composite hybrid structures, including fibre composites-wood/high-performance concrete.
  • Application of fibre-based composites in timber structures and joints for high performance structural elements.
  • Dynamic performance of composite structural systems.