With the 40th anniversary of James Cook University’s Cyclone Testing Station nearing, it’s fitting to share the story of the visionaries who established it. Their dedication has made millions of Australians safer in their homes.
Article based on a paper by Prof George Walker.
ABOVE: In 2007, the Cyclone testing Station’s 30th year, research engineers (from left) Peter Kim and Ulrich Frye at work in the Cyclone Testing Station’s wind tunnel with then Acting Manager Cam Leitch. Photo: Fiona Melder.
In 1958 Bowen was hit by its first cyclone in 76 years. It caused major damage. A young Sydney architect, Kevin Macks, had just joined an architectural practice in Townsville and became involved in the reconstruction. He settled in Townsville and formed his own architectural company, never forgetting the destruction he’d observed in Bowen and the lessons learned.
In 1963, when he was engaged by the University College of Townsville to take the 3rd year course in building construction and architecture, he was in the right place at the right time to make a difference.
In 1964 a relatively young civil engineering academic from the University of Melbourne, Hugh Trollope, a Welshman by birth and still in his 30s, became the first Professor at the University College of Townsville with his appointment as the foundation Professor of Civil Engineering. He was a visionary who believed the fledgling engineering department could become a major centre of civil engineering research in Australia.
It didn’t take long for Hugh and Kevin to become acquainted and together they were to produce the marriage of ideas from which the Cyclone Testing Station (CTS) was born.
In 1970 the University College of Townsville gained its independence as the James Cook University of North Queensland, and in this capacity provided the home for the CTS. It was a time when structural engineering research was synonymous with testing large structural components and assemblies, and Hugh Trollope was determined his Department would have the proper facilities to do this.
With this in mind, he approached the Queensland Government Co-ordinator General, Charles Barton, arguing successfully that there was a need for a facility in North Queensland to test full scale bridge beams. In this he had the support of a local consulting engineer, John McIntyre, who had come to Queensland from New Zealand as a young civil engineer. By the mid 1960’s he was well established as the head of North Queensland’s largest local firm of consulting engineers.
Not many bridge beams were tested, but the resulting strong floor facility was to prove invaluable for the testing of building components and sub-assemblies on which the CTS was to be based.
By January 1970 Hugh Trollope had achieved his first ambition of establishing a major centre for rock mechanics research in Townsville and was looking for further fields of research in which his Department could excel. Nature answered in the form of Cyclone Ada, which hit the Whitsunday Islands that month. His response was immediate. Hiring a plane he inspected the damage taking with him George Walker to look at the structural aspects of the damage.
Before he landed back in Townsville Hugh had decided here was the next big opportunity to do something unique. As he explained to George Walker, just as the 1960’s had been the decade of earthquake engineering research, so would the 1970’s be the decade of wind engineering research. Townsville could provide the lead in the study of cyclone-resistant housing and other low rise buildings.
Less than two years after Cyclone Ada, on Christmas Eve, 1971, the citizens of Townsville sheltered in their homes as the city was pounded by Cyclone Althea. For most it was their first direct experience of a cyclone. When the winds died down, if their own home had not been seriously damaged, then they had only to look down the street and see other homes that had been.
ABOVE: At the 30th Anniversary (from left) Prof George Walker, Kevin Macks, Prof Hugh Trollope and Neville Keating. ABOVE (INSET): John McIntyre
Cyclone Althea demonstrated that there was a fundamental problem with house building construction in cyclone-prone areas of Queensland. The damage generated the largest insurance loss from a single event in Australia up to that time. Two people were not surprised and they were ready to respond to it. Hugh Trollope responded by getting the Vice-Chancellor, Ken Back, to offer the services of the University to the Queensland Government for an investigation of the damage to determine the reasons for it and to make recommendations on changes in construction. Kevin Macks responded by organising the local building industry to tackle the inspection and repair of buildings using his experience from the Bowen cyclones 14 years earlier.
The Queensland Government readily accepted the University’s offer and made a grant to facilitate the study. The report on the effect on buildings was published in March 1972. In general the severity of the damage was attributed to inadequate design rather than poor workmanship, and the principal mode of failure was identified as uplift resulting in either loss of roof sheeting or structure. It was recommended that research and testing of roof sheeting and fixing methods should be initiated as a matter of urgency.
The need for education of the building industry on sound cyclone-resistant building standards was also emphasised. Although it didn’t foresee the establishment of a special unit to achieve these recommendations, the report played a major role in creating the environment from which the CTS evolved. For the University the major direct outcome was the establishment of cyclone-related research, particularly in engineering but in other disciplines as well.
Hugh Trollope was also keen to have a combination of structural and wind tunnel-based research and this led to the appointment of John Holmes and the construction of the University’s wind tunnel, which in turn led to the University becoming a leader in wind tunnel studies on low-rise buildings and particularly houses.
The Defining Event
On Christmas Day 1974 Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin causing the greatest destruction of any sudden onset disaster in Australia’s history. For those involved with the wind engineering research program at JCU, as well as many others, life would never be the same. Hugh Trollope’s first response was to contact the Acting Prime Minister, Jim Cairns, and offer the University’s services for investigating the damage. His second response was to send George Walker to Darwin.
Tracy highlighted problems that had not been exposed in Althea, particularly the importance of racking strength and of fatigue loading in the vicinity of the fasteners of the recently introduced high tensile steel roof cladding – which had replaced the thicker mild steel roof cladding used up to the time of Cyclone Althea.
It was clear that applying a piecemeal approach by just fixing problems that had been exposed, which had been the traditional approach to housing design for extreme events, was flawed. The major recommendation arising from the investigation was that houses in cyclone-prone regions should be subjected to the same level of structural design for wind as was applied to the design of larger buildings.
At the time this was a revolutionary recommendation and there were many in the building industry who believed it was impractical. Through the influence of its senior engineering public servants such as Norm Sneath, the Commonwealth Government delayed all reconstruction until the necessary research and testing had been undertaken. It was the demand for testing created by this recommendation that led to the creation of the CTS.
A Brilliant Proposal
Even prior to Cyclone Tracy the recommendations arising from Cyclone Althea had led to an increasing demand for the University’s structural testing facilities that was placing significant demands on the academic staff. To cope with increasing demands, Hugh Trollope proposed a structural testing unit should be established with financial support from interested industrial organisations. The aim should be to assist in investigations aimed at reducing building costs as well as ensuring adequate safety. However it was not to be just a testing unit. It would also undertake relevant research and development.
The proposal was endorsed in principle by the Vice-Chancellor, Ken Back, and Theo Wilkinson of Monier Colourtile Pty Ltd accepted responsibility for leading the lobbying effort. The CTS Interim Management Committee was formed to be responsible for raising funds, preparing a Constitution, and getting things up and running with Theo Chairman and Kevin Macks as Deputy Chairman. More than 10 other members joined the committee and every member became an enthusiastic contributor. The establishment of the CTS and its subsequent success owes much to each of them.
By mid-1977, with approximately $60,000 raised, the Interim Management Committee appointed engineer Greg Reardon as the inaugural Technical Director and the CTS was born.
A World Leader
The CTS now enjoys a worldwide reputation for advanced wind engineering and its research engineers are often sought-after speakers at Australian and international conferences.
It operates as a unit within the College of Science and Engineering at JCU Townsville and is self-funded, generating income through donations, commercial testing of building products and research grants.
The CTS is guided by an Advisory Board drawn from a mix of industry, government, research and professionals from around Australia. This unique situation allows the CTS to follow its research objectives and provide independent expert advice to clients.
As well as being a boon to the building industry, the results of CTS research have had a significant impact on the safety of homes in Australia’s cyclonic wind regions.
Researchers deploy early in front of areas due to be hit by a cyclone in order to be immediately on the scene to assess wind speeds and the damage caused.
The team will also be responsible for testing the innovative design of the roof of Townsville’s new stadium to ensure it has the necessary strength to stay attached in the event of an extreme weather event.
In 2013 Dr David Henderson, Director of the Cyclone Testing Station, with engineering students (left) Aaron Phillips and Travers Searle, readied portable anemometers for deployment in cyclone season. Photo: Andrew Rankin