Strengthening buildings to save lives

Wearing a yellow hard hat, a professor examines a shattered window.

From the window of his sixth-floor office, civil engineering professor Murat Saatcioglu looks over the downtown Ottawa cityscape, a mosaic of century-old brick houses, 1960s-era office buildings, modern glass-and-steel towers and, in the distance, the stately Gothic-revival architecture of the Parliament Buildings.

Sometimes he imagines what it would look like if a major earthquake hit.

“A significant portion of Canadian infrastructure was built prior to the 1970s, when we did not use modern earthquake design provisions in the building code,” says Saatcioglu, who holds the title of Distinguished University Professor as well as a University research chair.  “Should there be an earthquake, those buildings may suffer significant damage.”

The potential for a big quake to wreak destruction in a vulnerable Canadian city like Ottawa, Montreal or Vancouver is a motivating force behind the research conducted by Saatcioglu and his students, including PhD candidate Zaid Al-Sadoon. This research has recently lead to Al-Sadoon, supervised jointly by professors Saatcioglu and Dan Palermo, inventing a type of steel brace that can fit into the framework of older concrete buildings to stabilize them against earthquakes.

“A large number of buildings that are seismically deficient pose a significant threat to human safety and the economic wellbeing of society,” said Al-Sadoon. “We think of this as a valuable way to save precious lives world-wide.”

Steel, unlike concrete, has the ability to deform under pressure, absorb energy and bounce back into shape when the pressure is lifted. This means that steel bracing can preserve a building’s structural stability during an earthquake, whereas concrete alone would crack and crumble. The University is negotiating with a major American manufacturer to commercialize Al-Sadoon’s invention, which could be deployed in earthquake-prone regions around the world. The brace requires only a few custom-manufactured parts, and can otherwise be built from off-the-shelf materials, making it an economical option in developing countries.

Al-Sadoon tested his brace by building a life-sized model of a concrete wall in the Structures Laboratory of the University of Ottawa, where he subjected it to simulated earthquake loads. The lab also contains the only blast simulator in Canada, which reproduces the effect of a bomb attack on building components, such as walls, columns, beams, slabs, doors and windows, using compressed air instead of explosives. This can help Saatcioglu and his team develop ways to protect critical infrastructure such as embassies and government buildings against terrorist attacks.

When you donate to the University of Ottawa’s $400 million “Defy the Conventional” fundraising campaign, your support helps engineers like Saatcioglu and Al-Sadoon develop lifesaving inventions.

“Engineering is applied science,” Saatcioglu says. “If what we develop is used in practice, that brings us special joy.”

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