BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Build house. Shake vigorously. Repair damage.
That's the recipe earthquake engineers at the University at
Buffalo are following as they launch a series of unprecedented
seismic tests on a full-scale wood frame townhouse over the next
The 73,000-pound, 1,800-square-foot townhouse will be the
largest wooden structure to undergo seismic testing on a shake
table in the U.S.
The landmark testing at UB is part of a $1.24 million
international project called NEESWood, funded by the National
Science Foundation's George E. Brown, Jr., Network for Earthquake
Engineering Simulation (NEES).
Selected NEESWood tests and construction milestones at UB will
be open to the media, as well as broadcast live on the Web at http://nees.buffalo.edu/projects/NEESWood/video.asp.
In November, the full-scale, furnished, three-bedroom,
two-bathroom townhouse will be subjected to the most violent
shaking possible in a laboratory -- mimicking what an earthquake
that occurs only once every 2,500 years would generate.
In that final test, the townhouse is expected to suffer massive
damage, according to computer simulations performed by the UB
researchers and colleagues at other NEESWood institutions.
To gather the data, the UB researchers are equipping the
townhouse with 250 sensors that will provide detailed information
about how each nook and cranny behaves during each simulated
A dozen videocameras -- eight indoors and four outdoors -- will
record the damage as it happens.
The NEESWood research is based on the premise that if more were
known about how wood structures react to earthquakes, then larger
and taller structures could be built in seismic regions worldwide,
providing economic, engineering and societal benefits.
"We want to revolutionize the building of wood structures for
seismic performance," said Andre Filiatrault, Ph.D., professor of
civil, structural and environmental engineering in the UB School of
Engineering and Applied Sciences, a co-investigator on NEESWood and
the lead investigator on the UB tests.
The experiments will be performed in UB's Structural Engineering
and Earthquake Simulation Laboratory (SEESL), the only laboratory
in the nation large enough and sophisticated enough to conduct the
tests. Details about SEESL are available at http://nees.buffalo.edu/.
Between now and November, several dozen professors, students,
contractors and local companies will be constructing, testing,
repairing and testing again the two-story townhouse. It is being
constructed on top of twin, movable shake tables in UB's SEESL that
will be set to deliver the exact same earthquake payload with
precise simultaneous synchronization.
During each of the six testing phases being planned, the
townhouse structure will be subjected to five increasing levels of
shaking in three dimensions, the most authentic ground motions that
can be produced in a U.S. laboratory. The ground motions will
simulate increasing intensities that were recorded during the 1994
Northridge earthquake in the Los Angeles region.
Earthquake engineers say such testing is long overdue.
While wood frame construction accounts for an estimated 80-90
percent of all structures in the United States and 99 percent of
all residences in California, fewer than 10 percent of civil
engineering students are required to study wood design.
One hundred years after countless wooden buildings collapsed in
the devastating 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, little is known
about how they behave in earthquakes.
"Wood has always been the poor cousin of other design
materials," said Filiatrault. "Wood structures have been seen as
uninteresting and not very sexy. Engineers have traditionally been
more attracted to the design of commercial structures, like the
TransAmerica building in San Francisco," he said. "But the 1994
Northridge quake and the 1995 Kobe quake in Japan were
In Northridge alone, he said, half of the $40 billion in
property losses was due to damage to wood construction. Of the 25
fatalities that resulted from building damage in the quake, all but
one occurred in wood frame structures.
"Suddenly, wood frame construction has become more interesting
to engineers and now there are funds to study it," said
Filiatrault, who also is deputy director of UB's Multidisciplinary
Center for Earthquake Engineering Research.
The UB tests will be among the first to provide realistic data
to engineers about how a typical, full-scale, two-story wood-frame
townhouse built to current standards in California will behave in
One of the tests will examine how well dampers installed inside
the townhouse can protect the structure against damage during
seismic activity; it is the first time that such dampers will be
tested in a wood frame construction.
The ultimate goal of the four-year NEESWood project is to
develop a design philosophy for wooden structures in seismic
regions so that taller and larger wooden structures can be built,
up to six stories in height.
In some states, Filiatrault explained, wood structures of up to
four and five stories tall are being built, but there no data are
available on how such structures will perform in an earthquake.
Right now, he said, structures are designed to meet codes that
were not developed based on seismic testing of full-scale wood
"The problem is, property owners and engineers are not on the
same wavelength," he said. "For engineers, designing to code means
life safety for occupants, but you can do that and still sustain
major damage to a property. Owners, on the other hand, believe that
designing to code means they will have an intact building right
after the quake. Performance-based design gives both parties a
chance to balance the issue of how much an owner is willing to pay
to mitigate damage in an earthquake versus how much damage he or
she is willing to sustain."
The UB tests are the first step in moving toward
performance-based design for wood frame structures. NEESWood will
culminate with the validation of new design processes using a
six-story wood frame structure that will be tested on the world's
largest shake table in Miki City, Japan, early in 2009.
NEESWood is a consortium of researchers led by John W. van de
Lindt, Ph.D., professor of civil engineering at Colorado State
University; co-principal investigators are Rachel Davidson, Ph.D.,
assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at
Cornell University; Filiatrault of UB; David V. Rosowsky, Ph.D.,
professor and head of the department of civil engineering at Texas
A & M University, and Michael Symans, Ph.D., associate
professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer
Led by Filiatrault, the UB testing also will be conducted by
Assawin Wanitkorkul, Ph.D., a post-doctoral associate in the UB
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, and
Jianis Christovasilis, a graduate student in the UB department, as
well as several undergraduate students.
During summer 2006, Hirochi Isoda, Ph.D., of Shinshu University
in Japan, and Bryan Folz, Ph.D., of Canada's British Columbia
Institute of Technology, also will be joining the research at
In addition to NSF funding, the UB testing would not be possible
without the generous donations of time, resources and expertise
from private companies and educational institutions both in Western
New York and across the U.S. A listing of donor organizations and
participants is available at .