Largest US Building Earthquake Testing Underway


The University of Buffalo is reportedly preparing for what is being called the largest-ever United States earthquake test of a brick and mortar building, with hopes of making structures more earthquake-resistant.

Researchers anticipate findings from this project will directly influence the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) standard 41, which is titled "Seismic Evaluation and Retrofit of Existing Buildings."

The testing was anticipated to begin on March 13.

Project Background

Unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings commonly house residences, stores, restaurants, schools, fire departments and other critical infrastructure, but are susceptible to seismic vulnerability.

“URMs have a unique appearance, but besides aesthetics they are good in terms of energy efficiency, durability, and they do well in case of fire and wind/storm,” says Andreas Stavridis, associate professor of structural engineering and deputy director of the Structural and Earthquake Engineering Simulation Laboratory (SEESL).

“However, they do not perform well during earthquakes. In every city I have visited following a devastating earthquake in Europe, Asia and Latin America, URM buildings are the most damaged ones.”

However, despite this construction being banned in California after damage suffered during the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, many URM buildings remain in California and other U.S. cities. Many of these buildings also reportedly have historical significance.

According to the university, the research group plans to develop a framework for the design of reliable and cost-effective retrofit methodologies suitable for these structures. This includes the ASCE standard 41, which uses different performance-based methodologies to evaluate and improve, or retrofit, the performance of existing buildings during earthquakes. 

Stavridis is reportedly a member of the ASCE 41 standard masonry committee, and the current and former chairs of the committee are members of this project’s industry advisory panel.

Over the past three years, a team of graduate students, and students and instructors from the U.S. Department of Labor program Job Corps have built and tested several URM walls, using these results to design the current brick and mortar URM structure, UB reports.

“It is quite complex and expensive to test structures of this size. We do not have many opportunities to test such structures, so it took us a while to get ready. Very few labs in the U.S. can handle such a test,” Stavridis said of UB’s SEESL facility. “Researchers tend to focus on improving new construction guidelines and we tend to neglect existing buildings. Old buildings are more challenging.”

Construction for the current test building began in January. SEESL also reportedly developed a partnership with the Job Corps, the largest free residential education and job training program for young adults ages 16–24 to assist with the project.

“Our goal is to assess current strengthening methods. It will be the first time these methodologies are being tested on a building shake table under three-dimensional dynamic loads,” Stavridis said. “We have very little data, if any, from such tests in the U.S.

“We will have over 160 sensors on the structure to learn as much as we can about its behavior. During the tests we may pause and repair the structure to assess costs and effectiveness of repair strategies as well. If needed, we will test a second structure next year to propose and evaluate alternatives.”

Once testing is completed, the data will be analyzed by the team and, due to their different roles, could provide a path for direct implementation. If the findings support new ways to enhance URM buildings and their resilience to earthquakes, the impact could be significant, according to Stavridis.

“This can provide a measure of the safety for the structures already retrofitted, but also improve the guidelines and engineering practice for future retrofits,” he said.

The project, “Investigation of the resilience of a rehabilitated unreinforced masonry building with shake table tests,” is reportedly funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Stravridis is the principal investigator on the project, collaborating with co-principal investigators Kallol Sett and Michel Bruneau.

Recent Building Codes, Disaster Safety

Last year, in June, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Biden-Harris Administration announced a national initiative to advance building codes.

According to a fact sheet released by the White House, the new building codes initiative will boost resilience to the impacts of climate change, lower utility bills for homes and businesses, and prioritize underserved communities.

The initiative sets out to help state, local, Tribal and territorial governments adopt the latest, current building codes and standards created to make communities more resilient to hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and other extreme weather events that are intensifying due to climate change.

While the White House reports that nearly two out of every three communities have failed to adopt modern building codes, smart design or updated construction methods, earlier this year President Biden’s National Climate Task Force approved the new National Initiative to Advance Building Codes to accelerate the process.

The combination of efforts is slated to improve resiliency, create good-paying jobs and lower energy bills. Through the initiative, the Biden-Harris Administration will:

In an analysis where states were categorized based on building code uptake, FEMA found that 39 states fell into the lowest category—meaning that less than 25% of the state’s communities were covered by the latest hazard-resistant codes. On a nationwide scale, FEMA added that roughly 35% of counties, cities and towns have the latest codes in place.

To address this issue, in an all-of-government commitment made by the Biden-Harris Administration, key federal agencies will collaborate through a Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG) to increase support and incentives for modern code adoption.

The federal government plans to achieve these goals by undertaking a comprehensive review of agency programs that support new construction or substantial rehabilitation of homes and other buildings, through grants, loans, funding, financing or technical assistance.

Prior to the these codes, in March of last year, ASCE released a new evaluation framework regarding earthquake damage and potential fire ignitions.

In its new report, the ASCE’s Post-Earthquake Fire Hazard Task Group, along with the Fire Protection Committee of the Structural Engineering Institute, evaluate how earthquake damage can increase the likelihood of fire ignitions regarding utility lines and interior fire protection systems.

The document also presents the background for the analysis, design and assessment of building structural systems under fire following earthquakes, as well as guidance based on current state-of-the-art practices, applicable building codes and outcomes of experimental and numerical research results.

The book aims to benefit structural engineers, professionals in the nuclear industry, as well as first responders, building authorities, risk management and insurance professionals.


Tagged categories: American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); Asia Pacific; Building science; Certifications and standards; Colleges and Universities; Commercial Buildings; Concrete masonry units (CMU); Design - Commercial; Disasters; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Engineers; Good Technical Practice; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Latin America; Masonry; Mortars; North America; Performance testing; Program/Project Management; Projects - Commercial; Research and development; Residential; Retrofits; Safety; Testing + Evaluation; Z-Continents

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