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Updated 8:00 AM March 9, 2009
 

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New building design withstands earthquake simulation

Watch engineers simulate an off-the-charts earthquake >

Researchers have simulated an off-the-charts earthquake in a laboratory to test their new technique for bracing high-rise concrete buildings. Their technique passed the test, withstanding more movement than an earthquake typically would cause.
Engineers constructed a four-story, 40-percent replica of a building in a laboratory to test their new technique for bracing high rise buildings in earthquake zones. They simulated an earthquake by pushing and pulling the building with hydraulics. (Photo by Remy Lequesne)

The engineers used steel fiber-reinforced concrete to develop a better kind of coupling beam that requires less reinforcement and is easier to construct. Coupling beams connect the walls of high rises around openings such as those for doorways, windows and elevator shafts. These necessary openings can weaken walls.

"We simulated an earthquake that is beyond the range of the maximum credible earthquake and our test was very successful. Our fiber-reinforced concrete beams behaved as well as we expected they would, which is better than the beams in use today," says James Wight, the Frank E. Richart Jr. Collegiate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Working with Wight on this project are Gustavo Parra-Montesinos, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Remy Lequesne, a doctoral student in the same department.

Coupling beams are difficult to install and require intricate reinforcing bar skeletons. The U-M engineers created a simpler version made of a highly flowable, steel fiber-reinforced concrete.

The engineers envision that their brand of beam would be cast off the construction site and then delivered. Nowadays builders construct the beams, steel skeletons and all, bit by bit as they're building skyscrapers.

Their fiber-reinforced concrete has other benefits as well.

"The cracks that do occur are narrower because the fibers hold them together," Parra-Montesinos says.

The fibers are about 1-inch long and about the width of a needle.

The engineers performed their test in December on a 40-percent replica of a four-story building wall that they built in the Structures Laboratory. They applied a peak load of 300,000 pounds against the building, pushing and pulling it with hydraulic actuators.

To quantify the results, they measured the building's drift, which is the motion at the top of the building compared with the motion at the base. In a large earthquake, a building might sustain a drift of 1 to 2 percent. The structure easily withstood a drift of 3 percent.

The new beams could provide an easier, cheaper, stronger way to brace buildings in earthquake-prone areas.

The researchers are now working with a structural design firm to install the beams in several high rises soon to be under construction on the west coast.

This research is funded by the National Science Foundation under the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation Program.

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