Seismic  technology showcase

This Issue This is a part of the Resilient buildings feature

By - , Build 141

New seismic-resistant building design developed in New Zealand and worldwide over the last decade is at the forefront of the Christchurch rebuild, as these case studies illustrate.

Kilmore Street Medical Centre – three world firsts in seismic design.
Kilmore Street Medical Centre – three world firsts in seismic design.
Pg59 Fig 2
Steel fuse rods installed in between steel-braced frames with lead extrusion dampers at base – Kilmore Street Medical Centre.
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Base-isolated lightweight steel frame building – 53 Victoria Street, Christchurch.
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Urban village – new technology for foundations and slabs.

The Canterbury earthquakes revealed a widespread desire that buildings should not only survive a big shake, they should also remain free of major damage and be functional immediately after. 

Until recently, the accepted seismic design of buildings focused on preserving life. However, Christchurch has discovered the painful social and economic effects of having almost an entire CBD of buildings still standing but unusable or unable to be repaired.

Seismic-resistant design places a primary focus on keeping buildings damage-free and usable, not just staying upright. It has been applied to a handful of buildings across the country in the last 3 years and is now having a major impact on Christchurch construction.

Kilmore Street Medical Centre – three world firsts

Construction of the $40 million Kilmore Street Medical Centre includes three world firsts in seismic-resistant design.

It features the first ever application of steel PRESSS technology in a building. This structural system dissipates earthquake forces without residual building deformation. 

The PRESSS (PREcast Seismic Structural System) element consists of steel-braced frames that are free to rock laterally during an earthquake before tensioning in the bracing pulls the frames back into place when the shaking stops. 

The system was developed initially for use in reinforced concrete frames, but research shows it is viable for steel too. 

The building also features the world’s only use of two energy dissipation units in a single building. These units act like expendable fuses – they absorb the massive energy that is directed into them. They may be damaged or destroyed, but there is no impact on the building.

One of the fuse types is steel fuse rods located in between the PRESSS steel-braced frames, coupling them together. These rods consist of a mild steel round bar that is designed to yield in axial tension and compression to dissipate energy. 

The other represents another world first – a lead extrusion device developed at the University of Canterbury that has never been used before. This takes the form of a steel shaft with a bulge in it that is surrounded by lead. As the building moves in an earthquake, the shaft is pushed up and down, causing the lead to flow around the bulge. This dissipates huge amounts of energy.

These technologies make Kilmore Street an ambitious build, requiring special detailing at joints and engineering input for temporary works during construction. It’s a lot to pack into a 3-storey building.

However, the clients’ aim was clear. They wanted a building that would remain fully operational in the immediate aftermath of any earthquakes as big as those in 2011 and 2012. The result is a building 80% more seismically resistant than Building Code requirements.

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Steel fuse rods installed in between steel-braced frames with lead extrusion dampers at base – Kilmore Street Medical Centre.

St Elmo Courts – expanding the use of base isolation

This 6-storey building will be the first office building in Christchurch to employ base isolators in the foundations to dissipate earthquake energy. It is also designed to behave elastically – meaning no residual damage – in a 100% Building Code earthquake.

Base isolation reduces the forces put on a building by partially isolating it from the shaking ground. The building’s foundations are placed on multiple energy-absorbing bearings that shake and absorb much of the ground’s movement, meaning the structure above receives lower forces. The technology has been in worldwide use for over three decades and was pioneered in New Zealand through the use of lead-rubber bearings.

Interestingly, building owners the Owens Family say that, at $150,000, the 16 base isolators are less expensive than the building’s sprinkler system.

The building also features a mix of concrete and timber for its structural frame. The columns are made from precast concrete, and the beams are hollow laminated veneer lumber (LVL) timber members, a combination that is new to the industry.

The timber beams are post-tensioned with horizontal steel cables that provide strength to pull the beams back into line after a major shake. The cable ends are attached to shock-absorbing steel components that can double as energy-dissipating fuses in major earthquakes. These seismic-resisting timber solutions were developed at the University of Canterbury by the Structural Innovation Timber Company (STIC) – a BRANZ, New Zealand and Australian universities research and development group. St Elmo Courts will be the country’s tallest building containing STIC-developed technology.

51–53 Victoria Street – base-isolated lightweight steel frame

A new 3-storey building at 51–53 Victoria Street will receive advanced base isolation and a relatively lightweight steel structural frame.

Instead of conventional lead-rubber  base isolators, designers have chosen double concave slider bearings, where a puck sits between concave top and bottom stainless steel-lined plates. Under shaking, the plates and puck slide sideways across each other a distance of up to 40 cm, with the massive friction between them acting as an energy release for the building’s frame. 

Further adding to seismic resistance, the building’s steel framework will be inherently lighter than an equivalent concrete structure. The lighter building weight generally means reduced forces are generated during an earthquake, making the job of force resistance easier for the building’s frame. 

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Base-isolated lightweight steel frame building – 53 Victoria Street, Christchurch.

Leighs Construction headquarters – novel foundation solution

The new Leighs Construction headquarters in central Christchurch will be builtto 188% Building Code strength, meeting the standard normally applied to essential structures such as hospitals.

At its Manchester Street location, earthquake damage to the soils created a big difference in soil strength at each end of the site. This meant that foundation depth and strength requirements were vastly different from one side of the building to the other. 

Extensive ground testing to 24 m deep was followed by an open-minded search for the ideal piling type. To best suit the soil conditions, high-pressure grout piles were selected, and 160 of these were installed. 

This piling technique involves auguring into the ground combined with injection of high-pressure binders that spread into the soil. The binders mix with soil particles to create a stronger and more solid soil mass. This pile type is normally used for highway stabilising, and its application represents a first for Christchurch buildings. 

Breathe New Urban Village – new slab and foundation technology

A 72-dwelling development opposite Latimer Square that won the Breathe New Urban Village design competition will feature two new seismic-resistant technologies that focus on managing damage to foundations and floor slabs.

The 8,100 m2 complex of terrace houses and low-rise apartments will be built by an alliance that includes local Holloway Builders and Italian engineering firm Cresco. Cresco are bringing technologies known as Seismat and Armadillo to the project and to New Zealand for the first time.

Seismat is a passive load transfer device that provides an alternative to base isolators for dissipating energy. A section of Seismat is placed between two concrete slabs or column sections and its near-frictionless properties mean that the two members can move laterally and dissipate large amounts of energy harmlessly. A piece of Seismat contains four layers – two panels of Teflon and air sandwiched between two thin HDPE mesh external sheets.

Armadillo is a concrete floor slab formwork that uses recycled high-strength cardboard units to create a voided biaxial slab that provides high rigidity and strength even in expansive soils. It represents a big step forward from the conventional use of polystyrene blocks to form slabs, providing a slab that is lighter and stronger and has under-slab ventilation voids built-in.

Importantly, Armadillo formwork addresses the problem of concrete slabs settling and tilting during and after earthquakes. The system allows fast relevel of the foundation because, with greater slab strength, only the perimeter of the slab needs to be jacked up after settlement – there is sufficient inherent strength for the centre of the slab to rise without internal jacking.

Pres-Lam construction technology, developed at the University of Canterbury, is also being considered in the project to increase seismic resistance. Pres-Lam takes PRESSS thinking and applies it to timber buildings – structures are designed to flex and rock at their joints to dissipate energy and then be pulled back into place by steel tendons. 

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Urban village – new technology for foundations and slabs.

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Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.

Kilmore Street Medical Centre – three world firsts in seismic design.
Kilmore Street Medical Centre – three world firsts in seismic design.
Pg59 Fig 2
Steel fuse rods installed in between steel-braced frames with lead extrusion dampers at base – Kilmore Street Medical Centre.
Pg59 Fig 3
Base-isolated lightweight steel frame building – 53 Victoria Street, Christchurch.
Pg59 Fig 4
Urban village – new technology for foundations and slabs.

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