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Grant to Fund Research on Earthquakes, Building Design

Earthquake damage in Chile (John Wallace, UCLA)

Collapse of the 15-story Alto Rió condominium tower in Concepción, Chile, following the magnitude 8.8 earthquake in 2010 (John Wallace, UCLA)

Engineers at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and UC-Berkeley will study the impact of building construction practices, particularly the design and performance of structural walls, on resisting earthquake damage. The team led by UCLA civil and environmental engineering professor John Wallace is funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.

“The structural damage observed after powerful earthquakes over the past few years,” says Wallace, “has been eye-opening and concerning.” He cites specifically damage encountered in Japan, New Zealand and Chile (pictured right).

The solid, reinforced concrete walls, known as structural walls — that extend from a building’s foundation to its roof — are one of the most common systems used to resist earthquake forces in the U.S. and around the world. In many buildings, these walls surround stairs and elevators or are located at the building perimeter.

Recent advances in wall design and construction practices have resulted in thinner, more efficient wall geometries that are pushing the performance limits of this structural system, Wallace says but the recent damage seen in Japan, New Zealand, and Chile shows the need for a critical reassessment. In 2010, Wallace led a field team in Chile that assessed building performance and monitored how buildings responded to strong aftershocks, but the issues encountered by buildings overseas apply to those in the U.S. as well. “These earthquake-prone countries have modern building codes that are very similar to the codes used in California,” Wallace notes.

Using the labs at UCLA’s Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES@UCLA), the researchers will test stresses on full-scale structural components, and collaborate with Japan’s National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention on shake-table tests of buildings with structural walls.

The UCLA-Berkeley team will explore design and performance limits for structural walls, considering both conventional wall construction practices and innovative construction practices. The researchers then expect to demonstrate new systems that can transform design practices, and to develop performance-based design approaches for both conventional and non-traditional buildings.

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