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Industry & Trends

Mass Timber Structure Proves It’s Stronger than an Earthquake… Twice

The Mass Timber movement continues to gain momentum for its environmental and aesthetic appeal but a test structure proved that beauty is more than skin deep. 

Earthquakes are among the most devastating and destructive forces of nature, especially to high-rise structures. Engineers and builders have worked for decades – even centuries – to find solutions that keep buildings standing.

Now, mass timber structures – which are gaining growing acceptance due to their environmental impact as well as their aesthetic appeal – are increasingly being looked at as a possible answer to quakes too. 

This past May a 10-story timber test building just outside of San Diego was tested in not one but two experiments on what’s known as a “shake table” that subjects structures to forces “at the upper end of the Richter Scale,” according to published reports. 

It’s part of a program called the “Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) TallWood project,” a multi-institution research project that’s been going on for eight years and is charged with developing designs and standards for tall wood buildings that are resilient to seismic activity. Participants include the Colorado School of Mines, the University of Nevada, the University of Washington and the USDA Forest Products Laboratory. 

“In an earthquake, most buildings are designed to be super stiff. They don’t fall over, but they may be crushed in the process of resisting that force,” Thomas Robinson, founder of Lever, an architectural firm said in a report on the test. Many buildings survive earthquakes by simply not falling but are so internally damaged that they are unsafe to occupy and often have to be torn down, he said, adding that the mass timber structure “takes the force and allows it to be distributed as the building moves, and then brings it back to center.”

“In the back of your mind you’re thinking something might fail, what could it be. We didn’t really know,” Jonathan Heppner, a principal at Lever, also said in the interview. “Walking through the test afterward, both the non-structural and the primary structure had no visible damage, which was really great. It performed as well as anybody could have expected it to.”

Image: NHERI TallWood Project

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