Engineering Alumnus Shares His Expertise and Passion for Designing High-Rise Buildings

It was during a drafting course in high school when Villanova Engineering alumnus Andrew Blasetti ('04 COE, '06 MSCE) was creating blueprints for complex mechanical assemblies that he became passionate about engineering. He enjoyed seeing how parts—such as mechanical gears and bolted connections—came together to serve a purpose.

Blasetti is now a vice president at the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti in Philadelphia and was the lead structural engineer on the construction of the 60-story Comcast Technology Center that opened in 2018 in Philadelphia. He teaches a graduate Engineering course in structural engineering called Tall Building Design.

“I’m captivated by the ways buildings are affected by wind,” he says. “It affects all tall buildings—it pushes and pulls them and causes them to sway back and forth.”

The course begins with an introduction to high-rise systems and design challenges and continues with weekly topics: conceptual design of steel-frame building design of concrete tall buildings; designing for wind events; designing for seismic events; an introduction to software for structural analysis and design of buildings; and outrigger systems (a type of structural design system for building tall buildings).

The course is an elective, but strongly encouraged for those interested in pursuing a career in structural engineering and design of buildings. There is one prerequisite: Structural Dynamics, another graduate level course.

 Andrew Blasetti
Andrew Blasetti, '04 COE, '06 MSCE, (center) and his team of structural engineers, at the the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center building site.

“Students need not have prior experience working in the industry,” Blasetti says. “My goal is to help them prepare for that via this course.”

In addition to graduate-level Engineering students, there are also two engineers auditing the class—both of whom work for a prominent engineering firm in Philadelphia. They hope to use the information and concepts presented to bolster their firm's expertise in high-rise design. Blasetti notes that the two engineers often enhance the dialogue by asking very thoughtful questions.

The class is technical and builds upon material covered in other CEE courses, most of which is offered at the undergraduate level. “I promise this course dives much deeper than those cable TV shows about skyscrapers and 'modern engineering marvels',” Blasetti added. “If those TV programs interest you, then you'll love this class.”

When Blasetti began working at Thornton Tomasetti, he hadn’t planned on specializing in tall buildings; it just happened to work out that way.

“I was immediately fascinated by tall structures and how each high rise is unique with its own set of challenges,” he says.

With advances in modern technologies such as computational fluid dynamics—which simulates the interaction between fluids (e.g. air) and solids (e.g. buildings) as the fluid is set into motion—simulation allows engineers to see how wind travels around a building and where it exerts the greatest pressure, allowing them to reshape buildings, making them more aerodynamic and less costly.

Blasetti suspects there are some innovative developments on the horizon aimed towards tall buildings and ways those developments might mitigate wind-induced motions.

“It’s an exciting time to be an engineer in this industry,” he says. “And it’s very rewarding when a client comes to you with a billion-dollar project and trusts you with the job of figuring out how to make it stand up.”

Many of Blasetti’s team members at Thornton Tomasetti are Villanova Engineering graduates, who have shown exemplary levels of talent, dedication, motivation and energy.

“Designing and constructing the Comcast Technology Center didn’t happen overnight—it takes years. You need a team that’s in it for the long haul and willing to face challenge after challenge to see the project come to fruition,” Blasetti says. “My team and I worked on the design of the tower in complete secrecy for nearly a year before the project was announced to the public. It’s hard to keep something like that from your friends and family, but that’s what it takes.”

As in many fields, technology is changing how projects can and will be done and tall building design is rapidly approaching the transition to 3D digital models to serve as their design deliverables.

“The next couple of decades will deliver advances in artificial intelligence, automated design and virtual reality applications at the job site,” he notes.

Blasetti wants to prepare Villanova students for what’s ahead of them in an industry that’s constantly changing. He continually stresses that being the smartest person in the room isn’t enough to get ahead in the industry.

“I want to prepare them for the challenges they'll face early in their careers and to give them the confidence and motivation needed to design structures one hundred times taller than themselves,” Blasetti says. “But you also need to be able to present your ideas effectively to others that do not have a background in engineering.”

He adds, “Whatever problem or challenge an engineer is facing, don’t assume you’ll find an example of it in a textbook. Try to simplify the problem and solve it in a way you can understand. Then, try to think of every aspect you haven’t yet considered and see if it changes your solution.”

In line with Villanova’s tradition of service, Blasetti is passionate about working on projects that provide positive impacts to the communities they serve, regardless of how big or small those projects are. As a student at Villanova he traveled to Honduras with other students to help design and build facilities for the Amigos de Jesus orphanage. “I still consider those projects to be the most important and prominent ones of my career,” he says.

Blasetti gives credit to three of his former Villanova professors: Dr. Shawn Gross who “taught me everything I know about concrete design”, Dr. Joseph Yost who “introduced me to the world of structural steel”; and “Dr. David Dinehart, who mentored me during my graduate years at Villanova as I conducted an extensive research project, which led to an appreciation for innovative thinking.”

“Captivating Courses” is a feature introducing readers to some of the unique classes offered at Villanova University. Numerous courses across the University’s six schools and colleges provide students the opportunity to examine interesting and relevant topics. These features will give you a glimpse into some of these courses and the experiences they provide students. Find all of the Captivating Courses here.