Gaining a deeper understanding of what makes a structure safe and durable has provided a rewarding opportunity for an RMIT graduate to create homes for people in isolated communities.
As a fledgling undergraduate studying civil engineering at RMIT, Felicity Stewart never imagined she'd find herself working on a project in the Northern Territory – amid flooded dirt roads, cyclones, extreme humidity and crumbling infrastructure.
But that's exactly what she's doing now – and it's a good thing she loves a challenge.
Stewart first became interested in engineering at the end of high school. A natural-born problem-solver with a flair for mathematics, she was eager to work in a field that would offer her a challenge.
After completing a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil Engineering) at RMIT, she was keen to delve deeper and explore more complex structural engineering problems, so she enrolled in the Master of Engineering (Structures and Forensics).
"Studying the postgraduate program has provided me with a deeper understanding of how structures work in a holistic sense and I think this has really shaped the foundation of my career," Stewart says.
She now works alongside an integrated team of architects, engineers, material scientists, industrial designers and carpenters to deliver building projects.
"I'm a project manager working on a pre-fabricated housing plan aimed at remote regions of Australia," she says. We create and deliver homes that are designed to deliver a number of benefits to isolated communities, including better health outcomes, increased capacity for community employment and reduced reliance on grid-supply infrastructure."
Stewart says she and her team experience plenty of challenges due to the area’s limited accessibility.
"Roads sometimes flood during the wet season and are often just a dirt track; there are cyclonic concerns; there’s a shortage of trained professionals local to the area; and a lack of existing infrastructure," she says.
"Furthermore, we’re working in a humid climate and that can be corrosive to building materials."
However, Stewart says her studies have helped prepare her for extreme conditions.
"Getting to work on real-world research projects and learning to perform a forensic analysis of existing structures and earthquake engineering have all provided great experience for me in this role."
Dr Saman De Silva, senior lecturer in Structures and Forensics at RMIT, says the program is designed to up-skill students’ existing capabilities, as they work to reverse engineer real-life structural failures.
"Engineering is usually about building and testing at small-scale, in a laboratory, however if a structure fails, there are so many lessons you can absorb," De Silva says.
"There has been an influx of new, imported materials that are being used in buildings now, which are cheaper and made overseas.
"There is a concern that these materials aren’t up to Australian quality assurance standards, so a lot of testing is required – not entire structures – just elements of particular buildings.
"An important skill as an engineer is being able to assess the safe life of infrastructure.
"We need more experts in this area, and RMIT offers the only program of this kind in Australia."
These lessons have been invaluable for Stewart, whose current workplace proudly uses advanced, Australian technology.
"We are Melbourne-based, and all our materials are designed and engineered in Australia, using Australian products and innovations," she says.
"We use composite materials that reduce waste and don’t corrode and our advanced material technology protects houses from heat and humidity.
"Water and waste systems can even be plugged in to make the homes self-sufficient."
"These advanced systems increase the life of a house in extreme climates, simplify its assembly and reduce the financial and environmental cost, over its life time; a small but significant step in shaping a more sustainable future in engineering."
Story: Sophie MacGillivray