Man-made Quakes Test for Sturdier Buildings

July 31, 2013
Ben Schafer of civil engineering and students test cold-formed steel in the lab

Prior to earthquake testing in Buffalo, Prof. Ben Schafer (right), tested cold-formed steel in his structural engineering lab at Johns Hopkins. Pictured with him are doctoral student Kara Peterman, (left), who is overseeing the testing in Buffalo, and Luiz Vieira, who participated in the research while earning his doctorate at Johns Hopkins.

Earthquakes never occur when you need one, so a team led by Johns Hopkins structural engineers is shaking up a building themselves in the name of science and safety.

Using massive moving platforms and an array of sensors and cameras, the researchers are trying to find out how well a two-story building made of cold-formed steel can stand up to a lab-generated Southern California quake. The testing, taking place later this summer in Buffalo, NY, marks the culmination of a three-year, $1 million research project involving scientists from six universities and design consultants from the steel industry. The trials will wrap up in mid-August, when the researchers will shake the unoccupied structures with forces comparable to those at the epicenter of the catastrophic 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles.

The researchers may sound like a wrecking crew, but their work has important implications for the people who construct, live or work in buildings, says Benjamin Schafer, lead researcher and professor and chair of the Department of Civil Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering. The results are expected to lead to improved nationwide building codes that will make future cold-formed steel buildings less expensive to construct than current ones.

“This is the first time a full building of cold-formed steel framing has ever been tested in this way, so even the small things we’re learning could have a huge impact,” said Schafer. “We’ll see code changes and building design changes. We think this will ultimately lead to more economic, more efficient and more sustainable buildings.”

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