Adding Rock ‘n’ Roll So Buildings Withstand Earthquakes

Stress-testing wood improves chances of restoration after a disaster.

Although an earthquake can devastate in a few short seconds, restoration and reconstruction can take years to complete. In the 2011 Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake, there were only two major building collapses, yet 70 per cent of the city’s downtown had to be demolished because buildings were deemed uninhabitable. Restoration took five years. Earthquake recovery costs are huge. According to an Insurance Board of Canada study, an earthquake either in BC or Quebec would be nearly ten times as costly as the Fort McMurray fires, which cost over $8 billion.

So, Professor Lydell Wiebe and Mitacs Globalink Research Intern, Soundarya Govindaraj from partner university, NIT Tiruchirappalli, India, have been researching building materials suited to withstand earthquakes. Wood is the chosen material.


Build To Rock Rather Than Break

The National Building Code of Canada requires buildings to keep inhabitants safe in an earthquake. But a building’s lifespan is expected to end in such an event. The damage would render it unsafe for future use.

However, with recent advancements in design, buildings can be restored to normal quickly and economically.

Soundarya is researching the role timber walls might play, how they would respond to seismic shifts, and resist earthquake loads without collapse or major structural damage. She’s doing computer modelling to test systems to better understand their behaviours under different circumstances.

Professor Wiebe says, “When someone designs a building, they can’t prototype it. The modelling tools Soundarya is working on allow those who are building tall wood structures to calculate what’s safe, reliable, and economical.”

For Soundarya, the focus is on shock waves flowing through buildings, allowing them to remain intact and not require demolition.

“These systems respond to seismic loading through partial uplift from the foundation, dissipating energy through rocking impact and supplemental energy elements.”

They’re testing wood as a material to rock rather than break under seismic pressure. The research is supported with numerical modeling to help identify key issues that require experimental investigation. Specifically, she’s studying controlled rocking as part of research to develop timber walls that resist earthquake loads without major structural damage.


Research that will enhance future studies

“Soundarya is testing a series of large wood Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) panels that are two storeys tall to see what happens when we simulate the load during an earthquake at maximum stress. She’s been working on instrumentation,” says Professor Wiebe. “She’s making it possible to go ahead with the tests, and she’ll leave us with a report so we can carry on testing. The way she’s pulling together resources will be useful for a number of projects going forward.”

For Soundarya, each step every day has felt enthralling and new, starting from the workplace etiquette, safety practices, handling equipment, finding solutions for the technical issues which pop up at unexpected times, managing the timeline of the project, research ethics, professional communication, and sharing of ideas.

“All these were totally new to me because this is my first international work experience,” she says. “Apart from the immense advantage of gaining the knowledge of the subject, the culture and the people are very engaging and interacting, which makes the stay more pleasant and also opens up future opportunities.”

Professor Wiebe is a firm believer in the GRI program, he says, “I apply for a Mitacs student every year. You can’t lose. All Mitacs students have contributed meaningfully, one has a start-up company in India, another is going to school in the U.S., and one is coming back to work with me.”



Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Globalink Research Internship program. In addition, in the summer of 2019, Mitacs was pleased to work with the following international partners to support Globalink: Universities Australia; the China Scholarship Council; Campus France; the German Academic Exchange Service; Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education, Tecnológico de Monterrey, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico; and Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Mission Universitaire de Tunisie en Amerique du Nord.​

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