Designing earthquake-resistant structures

Engineers continue to find ways to help buildings withstand earthquakes, tornados and hurricanes.

Collapsed building Fabio Taucer works as a scientific officer at the European Laboratory of Structural Assessment (ELSA), researching engineering and seismic risk prevention, preparedness and mitigation.

Her survived his first earthquake at one-year-old, after his mother picked him up one day earlier from a building that collapsed during the Caracas 1967 earthquake. Its failure to withstand the tremors brought important lessons to the engineering community on how to design earthquake-resistant structures.

Later on in his life, after having obtained his bachelors degree in Civil Engineering in Venezuela, Fabio moved to the USA to pursue graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley. During his first night upon arrival he experienced a small tremor, which anticipated - by one month - the Loma Prieta (San Francisco) earthquake of 1989 that caused 63 fatalities and widespread damage.

The years that followed this earthquake set a high demand of engineering expertise for the evaluation of the damaged structures and the repair and reconstruction process that went on for more than ten years. As part of this effort, Fabio was involved in the seismic retrofit of the Golden Gate Bridge, which together with his research experience at the University of California opened the doors to an exiting career in earthquake engineering.

Buildings are engineered to withstand the forces of nature by providing sufficient resistance and capacity so that they can adequately perform commensurate to the magnitude of the forces acting over them. This requires a good knowledge of structural mechanics and dynamics.

Full-scale earthquake simulations

ELSA test rig

Fabio currently works at the European Commission's ELSA laboratory at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Ispra, Italy. One of the ways they work is to carry out full-scale simulations on structures - such as a three-storey reinforced concrete residential building - to study their response when subjected to earthquake shaking.

"This allows us to understand their modes of failure, their capacity and their weak points, generating the necessary information that is then transposed into construction standards, such as the Eurocodes," says Fabio.

"Moreover, the data generated during experimental tests is used to calibrate numerical models for simulating with computer software the response of structures to earthquake, wind, and other actions." He adds.

Not just a problem for one country, engineers from around the globe are working together on designing and engineering new buildings that can better withstand the forces of nature.

Most of the work Fabio undertakes at the ELSA is done together with partners from across Europe and beyond. In particular, he is responsible for the coordination of large projects in earthquake engineering, which require a first stage of justifying their value to the society, a second stage of research development, and a third and final stage of dissemination of results to the public. He also conducts research work with doctoral and post-doctoral students, which provides ELSA with an important link to academia.

Earthquake engineering - career highlights

It sounds like an exciting career, so what achievements has Fabio notched up after around 20 years in this sector?

"During my stay at the University of California at Berkeley I carried out research work that lead to the conception of a numerical model for simulating the seismic response of reinforced concrete columns, which set the starting point for the development of a new generation of numerical models," he says.

"Later on, I worked in San Francisco for a structural design office, where I was involved in the seismic retrofit of long span bridges. While in Europe, I have worked with the assessment of the performance of various types of structures, including cooling towers, arched dams and pedestrian bridges. More specifically, while at the European Commission, I have been involved in the coordination of projects for the enhancement and networking of the most important research laboratories in earthquake engineering in Europe, while offering access to researchers to carry out their work in these laboratories."

Fabio finds participation in field assessment missions the most exciting part of the job. He travels with groups of engineers to areas affected by large earthquakes, with the aim of learning from the damage experienced by structures and on how society copes with disasters. His latest trips have been to Peru and China, where he had the opportunity to be in close contact with the affected population and see how the sector's work can make a difference when earthquake resistant designs are properly implemented.

"As most of our work involves existing structures for which we need to assess their resistance and performance in the event of an earthquake, the work I do reminds me of that of a detective, where we need to determine how a building will perform in future earthquake events, or, in the case of earthquake disasters, understand what determined the collapse and damage of a certain building."

International team work

"Most importantly, the advancements and innovations in our work are the result of team work at an international level, which makes me feel part of a community that has no cultural or language barriers with the common goal of protecting people."

Fabio's field is just one of many engineering specialisms where you can make a difference to millions of people. Perhaps this will be your field of choice and you'll go on to save endless lives through the design of safer, "earthquake-proof" buildings. Perhaps instead you'll go on to develop a new way to generate renewable energy enabling millions in the developing world to have electricity in their homes, schools and hospitals. You might even engineer an artificial limb that can grow human skin.

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