WCU engineer assists with city public art project


Artists Alex Irvine and Ian Wilkinson want the new three-dimensional mural they created for downtown Asheville to have an impact – just not the kind that would involve any of their 50-pound tiles tumbling to the sidewalk or street below. Their 22-by-21-foot work depicts a woman daydreaming as she looks out over the city against a window-like art deco horseshoe background, and some of the mural’s pieces are 15 to 40 feet off the ground. Safely attaching the mural to a parking deck next to a hotel was critical, said Irvine. “It’s a big deal that this works,” he said.

construction management

Construction management students observe as artist Alex Irvine (left) and Robert Steffen (right), WCU assistant professor of construction management, prepare to test the safety of methods for installing a three-dimensional mural.

After working with technicians, chemists and engineers to develop a plan for adhering the artwork, the artists collaborated with Robert Steffen, a structural engineer who teaches construction management at Western Carolina University, to test the safety of methods for installing the mural. Steffen holds a doctorate in civil engineering and has experience completing engineering for the installation of large pop art sculptures.

Steffen also designed and helped build a load frame in a lab at WCU’s Kimmel School that can measure up to 200,000 pounds of force – a piece of equipment that would work to test the safety of methods for attaching Irvine’s and Wilkinson’s artwork in Asheville. Steffen and his students had used the device for projects such as testing whether beams made of material similar to recycled milk jugs could be safely used in marine docks or bridges, and materials being used in a current renovation of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


“Daydreamer” by artists Alex Irvine and Ian Wilkinson is located on the north side of Aloft Hotel at 51 Biltmore Ave. in Asheville.

For the Asheville art project, a dozen 4-inch-by-4-inch clay tiles that represented the mural were attached to cement blocks that represented the building using a Sikadur epoxy in conjunction with secondary attachment methods, such as securing the tile with bolts. The first sample – anticipated to be the weakest design – did not break even hours into testing, long after the WCU class that came to meet Irvine and observe the work had dismissed. When the sample did fail, the tile and adhesive remained in place while the cement block representing the building sheared in half, which was good news, said Steffen.

“Our method of attachment was actually stronger than the cement block itself,” said Steffen. “The safety factor was well beyond our expectations.”

For the WCU engineer, taking part in the project was fun. He valued supporting a city-commissioned public art installation and was excited to get to share the hands-on engineering experience with his students. “The project offered a chance for our students at WCU to see a real-world problem with a problem-solving method,” he said.