Current Funded Projects


Collaborative Research: NNA Research: Capturing Indigenous Knowledge to Co-Design more Effective Operations, Maintenance and Management of Water Infrastructures

Rural water infrastructure systems in the Arctic have many key issues. They are often in remote locations that are hard to reach. The practical implication of this is that it often takes several days to bring adequate supplies and outside expertise when problems arise in the system. Therefore, to ensure continuous service in these systems, the local community and on-site operators have outsized responsibility in operating, managing, and maintaining the system. Additionally, these systems were based upon engineering knowledge that was not well-grounded in local community experience and know-how. Thus, besides having to do much of the operation, management, and maintenance on their own, they have to do so on a system from which they are unfamiliar, and whose underlying assumptions differ markedly from their own sensibilities. How then do we ensure continuous water system in such an extreme operating environment (e.g., far to reach and does not match local know-how and experience)? This is the question that the researchers are hoping to address through revising water operator support material to better tie such water infrastructure systems to local know-how and resources that will better ensure more reliable and continuous water service.

Funded by NSF award # 2127353   |  Collaborators: Drs. Daniel Armanios, Lynn Katz, Suzanne Pierce


RAPID: Implications of Utilities Decision-making and Communication Strategies in Urban Populations Response under Extreme Weather Events

Through this project we will investigate how local utilities develop their communication strategy plans and decision making under an extreme weather event and identify both inefficiencies in the communications and decision-making approaches to enhance communications and ensure more equitable outcomes. The extreme weather events caused by the Polar Vortex in spring 2021 impacted Texas’ energy and water infrastructures, leaving millions of Texans without access to these basic services. An issue that played a role in exacerbating the impacts incurred by communities was the inadequate communication between utilities and the community. This RAPID project seeks to understand inefficiencies in the communication approaches from utilities to their community-based customers as well as decision making when grid failures forced blackouts. The empirical knowledge derived from this work will support research at the intersection of disasters, utilities’ communications, and impact on households and the built environment. Additionally, findings have the potential to help identify opportunities for utilities to build resilience in their decision making and communication efforts. The project team will create technical guidance for utilities to proactively strengthen communication strategies thereby promote NSF’s mission of generating science to help advance the health, prosperity, and welfare of our nation’s communities.

Funded by NSF award # 2129801   |  Collaborators: Drs. Sergio Castellanos, Keri Stephens


NNA Track 2: Collaborative Research: Water Infrastructure in the Arctic: Vulnerabilities at the Intersection of Social, Natural and Physical Systems

Even when it exists, formal water infrastructure in rural Alaska often fails to provide an adequate level of service to Alaskan households and communities. Operating water infrastructure in the Arctic is particularly difficult due to the unique coupling between the engineered systems and the unusually extreme challenges from social and natural systems. The small and remote nature of communities present unusual logistical, financial, and workforce challenges, while an extreme and changing climate further complicates the technical work needed to operate and maintain the systems. Accordingly, this project integrates knowledge of the water service challenges, data needs, and workforce issues experienced by Arctic communities and develop approaches to address these challenges and needs with appropriate strategies. Broadly, this project is reducing uncertainty surrounding the operations of Arctic water infrastructure under conditions of climate change, and in doing so identifies new places where research is urgently needed. Enabled by semi-structured interviews and focus groups, this planning grant is designed to forefront Alaskan community member and utility operator knowledge.

Funded by NSF Award # 2022666   |  Collaborators: Dr. Jessica Kaminsky


RAPID/Collaborative Research: Implications of Social Distancing Policies on Water Infrastructure System

This grant explores how drinking water services provided by water utilities have been impacted by the social distancing policies undertaken by much of the nation during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. By design, social distancing policies have caused immense change in human behavior, as families’ shelter in place and industrial and commercial sectors pause operations. One of the many consequences of these changes is a significant spatial, temporal, and volumetric change in water use within municipal water distribution systems. These changes have the potential to substantially impact water age and water quality both within the distribution system and within homes and other buildings. In addition, utilities are facing unprecedented workforce, financial, and logistical challenges because of the pandemic as they respond to the unknown and emerging consequences of social distancing policies. In this research, existing water meter data and new interview data is used to identify changes in water use patterns associated with various social distancing regimes. Next, the impacts of these changes on the pressure and water quality in distribution systems is evaluated via hydraulic modeling and water quality sampling and analysis. These data, coupled with physical, chemical, and microbiological water quality analyses, will provide vital new empirical knowledge of water infrastructure performance under social distancing conditions. Interview data from utilities around the nation validate findings and explore challenges experienced and response taken to mitigate the consequences of social distancing.

Funded by NSF Award #2032434 | Collaborators: Drs. Lynn Katz, Kerry Kinney, Lina Sela, Mary Jo Kirisits, Jessica Kaminsky 


Collaborative Research: Urban Watershed Evolution – Novel Temporal Perspectives on the Hydrologic Impacts and Positive Unintended Consequences of Failing Municipal Infrastructure

Modern societies depend on rural and urban watersheds in a symbiotic relationship that requires balance among unintended anthropogenic inputs, local hydrology, and riparian ecosystem health. Municipalities are increasingly challenged to use aged and failing infrastructure to deliver a continuous supply of clean water, and to return and treat wastewater. Major consequences of leaking infrastructure for urban streams are changes in geomorphology and degraded chemical, physical, and biological conditions, collectively dubbed the ‘urban stream syndrome’. By using Sr isotopes as natural tracers, we show that some Austin-area streams are comprised of up to 90% of tap water and wastewater (collectively “municipal water” hereafter) during base flow. A significant unknown is the fate of municipal water after it leaves the engineered system and enters the natural hydrologic system, leading to several key research questions: How does municipal water geochemically evolve once it is transmitted to the natural hydrologic system? When, and under what conditions, did infrastructure failure begin, and how has it progressed over time?

Funded by NSF Award #2055536 | Collaborators: Drs. Jay Banner, Darrel Tremaine, Bryan Black

Enabling Solar-Powered Water Purification Technology

Water scarcity caused by pollution in the wake of natural disasters or supply system damage is a severe threat to modern society and a severe challenge to emergency response/rescue agencies. In Texas, boil water notices associated with extreme weather events have highlighted the need to provide short-term, point-of-use technologies. In other cities, concerns associated with other contaminants have driven people to consider alternative point-of-use options. Thermal processes such as vapor compression and multiple-effect distillation are enticing, but they require significant infrastructure that incorporates energy on energy recycling to make them competitive with reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis technologies that use membranes to purify water have several limitations including high cost, energy inefficiency, potential fouling, and significant wastewater discharge. Solar-powered water purification is one of the most promising potential technologies to enable household production of distilled water at low cost and high efficiency. However, the core step of solar water purification, i.e., vapor generation, is highly energy-intensive. The mismatch of diffuse solar flux and the energy required for water vaporization (i.e., phase change enthalpy) fundamentally hinder the efficiency. My role on this project is to develop an analytical framework that will allow us to shift the paradigm from centralized technologies to decentralized technologies by understanding institutional motivators and barriers and exploring institutional complexity to diffuse innovation.  Technologies exist within an operating context, and simply put, without understanding that operating context, many technologies will not thrive within unique communities they were not designed specifically to exist within. However, an understanding of this operating context and the implications, allows for satisficing engineering technologies that are sustainable in the long-term, providing resilience against chronic events such as climate change.

Funded by the UT Energy-Institute | Collaborators: Drs. Lynn Katz, Guihua Yu



Disaster Continuity for Businesses and Communities in Rural Texas: Investigating Infrastructure, Communication, and Planning Needs

Disasters, including floods, fires, weather events, and hurricanes, are frequent in Texas. They affect both large and small businesses and highlight the vulnerabilities of infrastructural systems such as power, water, and broadband connectivity. While some disaster-recovery resources are available for businesses and communities in Texas (e.g., Government Land Office, FEMA, SBA), small, rural communities often lack the resources to plan for and respond to disasters. This project focuses on the Gulf Coast region of Texas and uses an interdisciplinary approach to understand the social and technical aspects of disaster-resilience efforts needed to help small businesses and communities in Texas. This two-year project will begin by analyzing local disaster communication plans in place that target small businesses and community organizations.  Next, the team will dissect the programs and messaging around disaster preparedness and recovery that effectively reach small businesses. Undergraduate students within the IC2 Home to Texas program will be an integral part of the team, since they can provide their local community knowledge to the project.  Tangible outcomes of this project include creating local disaster resilience training kits (based off the FLASH and FEMA disaster continuity workshop model), mapping the assets of communities, and raising awareness around the increasing needs for disaster planning.

Funded by the UT Austin- IC² Institute | Collaborators: Drs. Keri Stephens, Sharon Strover


Collaborative: Standard: Institutions in Student Organizations Cultivating Cultures of Ethical Engineering

This project investigates the role that different student organizations play in cultivating ethical behavior of engineering students in the U.S. and to identify the precise institutional mechanisms within those organizations that foster ethical behavior. Research shows that students are typically less interested in understanding the ethical implications of their work at the end of their studies than they were at the beginning. This gap between instruction and application indicates a continued need for research to identify factors that are effective in cultivating a culture of ethical STEM and promoting an awareness and understanding of ethics among engineering students. The results from the proposed research will directly affect student organizations within the studied institutions and beyond. This study will involve a diversity of key players in these organizations including leadership, mentors, and members to open discussion regarding improving engineering ethics behavior. The project will also test the efficacy of interventions and create a set of guidelines for student organizations. This research promises to educate ethical engineers within and beyond the university, and it is expected to have positive impacts on the people and communities that are affected by engineering projects.

Funded by NSF Award #1926330  | Collaborators: Drs. Cristina Poleacovschi, Scott Feinstein, Cassie Rutherford, Kate Padgett Walsh 



The Cost of Controversy on a Project: Incorporating Valid Stakeholders

The successful implementation and operation of energy projects is critical to ensure the world’s increasing energy demands can be met. These infrastructure projects often face challenges due to opposition from various external stakeholders during construction. Conflict between stakeholders has the potential to cause project delays, cost overruns, and damage a company’s public image. It is critical that developers anticipate potential controversy when planning projects; yet limited research exists as a point of reference. We seek to fill this gap by collecting and analyzing data about previous projects to identify stakeholders, types of controversy, and resulting consequences. Here, we aim to model the consequences of controversy stemming from public opposition towards energy construction projects.  We  propose  a  management framework to  determine  the  potential  costs  and  schedule delays  during  a  project’s  timeline.  By anticipating potential controversy, developers will be able to plan for cost and schedule impacts on their projects. They may be able to engage with community members to mitigate opposition, or include additional funds and days in the project schedule to account for inevitable setbacks. Government agencies may also find this useful in introducing strategic requirements in the regulatory process in order to improve community engagement and minimize escalation of controversy. Ultimately, a better understanding of the impacts of controversy will lead to more efficient energy project construction.

Funded by ENGIE


AWP Execution Planning Guide for Projects

The principal objective of this research is to develop an AWP Execution Planning Guide for Projects. This Guide should complement the existing CII body of knowledge in AWP, distilling it into effective and uniformly applicable recommendations (adjusted for project type and size and participant maturity). Such a Guide will help speed adoption of AWP by providing common guidance for the industry, reducing proliferation of competing specifications that can hinder adoption or investment by service providers.

Funded by the Construction Industry Institute (CII) | Collaborators: Dr. Bill O’Brien



RAPID/Collaborative Research: Disaster Migration and Civil Infrastructure: The Impacts of Sudden Population Influxes on Water and Sanitation Infrastructure

This project explores the impact of normative and cultural-cognitive perturbations on water and sanitation utilities caused by sudden and large population influxes. Water and wastewater infrastructures are necessary for the continued functioning of urban environments. Large and sudden population influxes must be accommodated by this infrastructure in order to avoid secondary public health disasters for impacted populations. This research assesses the implications for utilities that find themselves serving transient, sometimes large populations (particularly those which arise suddenly). This knowledge can enable more resilient planning, policy, and technical design that can accommodate potential disaster migration and other extreme population growth as required. This project identifies and explores changes in the organizational structure and processes of utilities in response to the European refugee influx, which triggered an unprecedented flow of refugees to European nations. This situation provided a unique opportunity to capture perishable data on the institutional impacts that sudden, disaster-triggered population increases may have on established water and sanitation utilities. This work provided new insights into how normative and cultural/cognitive forces can influence the shape and function of public utilities. Data on both human and technological aspects of these phenomena was collected, including interviews, observations and visual documentation, in Germany, Lebanon, and Sweden.

Funded by NSF Award # 1624409  |  Collaborators: Dr. Jessica Kaminsky


Big traffic data as an approach for roadway construction planning: quality assessment and aggregation framework

The rapid development of intelligent transportation systems in the past few decades has catalyzed the collection and use of big data. Here, we propose utilizing this data to enable more informed, and data-driven planning for roadway construction operations—an application different from its typical use. In this study, an integrated framework for assessing quality—e.g., validity and completeness—and aggregating big traffic data at various temporal and spatial levels is proposed to make it useful for roadway construction planning. This framework integrates data completeness measure with aggregation and visualization for further validation. Framework demonstration showcases the significance of using high granular traffic data that considers the specifics of individual roadways to better inform construction planning. The analyses demonstrate how integrating data completeness with performance measures’ behaviors patterns can provide improved understanding of the accuracy of information provided by the big traffic data. The proposed framework contributes to advances in construction engineering and management through utilization of big data for planning construction operations to achieve key goals of maximizing safety and minimizing the impacts of construction operations on road users.

Funded by TXDOT  | Collaborators: Nabeel Khawaja


RT DCC-04 Promoting the Use of Advanced Work Packaging (AWP)

Work packaging is not a new concept for the construction industry. One such method of work packaging is Advanced Work Packaging (AWP), a construction-driven process that adopts the philosophy of “beginning with the end in mind”. This research contributes to efforts of promoting AWP use, aims to identify potential solutions to overcome AWP implementation barriers, and provides recommendations to enhance AWP and engineering integration. Here, solutions to overcome AWP implementation barriers are presented; potential solutions are mapped directly to barriers. The research findings as synthesized through the AWP Concierge that presents the findings in a user-friendly format.

Funded by the Construction Industry Institute (CII) | Collaborators: Dr. Carlos Caldas