New Seismic Protection System Wins National Award

Release Date: February 17, 1995 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A project to retrofit the historic U.S. Court of Appeals building in San Francisco with an innovative earthquake-engineering technology has won the General Services Administration's National Design Award in Engineering, Technology and Innovation.

Invented, developed and manufactured in the U.S., the Friction Pendulum System (FPS) was tested extensively at the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (NCEER), headquartered at the University at Buffalo.

The project was selected out of a total of 108 involving federal structures. The award is given every other year to celebrate design and engineering excellence in federal buildings.

Damaged in 1989 by the Loma Prieta temblor, the circa 1905 building has been closed ever since. It is the most ornate federal building west of the Mississippi, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The structural retrofit work, designed by the architectural/engineering firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of San Francisco, was completed last spring. It involved lifting the block-long building off of its foundation so that the earthquake-engineering devices could be slipped underneath.

"This project was completely unique for the federal government," said John Petkewich, regional manager of the General Services Administration, which owns the building. "The technology is a great example of how base isolation can be used to help preserve and protect historic structures."

He explained that the FPS was chosen for the building because it required far less invasive construction work than competing technologies, and because it would save the GSA $8 million. The technology, he added, also had proven itself in extensive testing.

Invented by Victor Zayas, Ph.D., president of Earthquake Protection Systems of San Francisco, the FPS should allow the 60,000-ton building to respond to strong earthquakes by swinging gently from side to side, like a pendulum, minimizing the risk of damage to the structure and the people who work inside it. The system is based on the principle of seismic, or base, isolation, which protects structures from quake damage by isolating them from ground motions.

The court building is the largest and heaviest structure in the U.S. that has been retrofitted to resist earthquake forces using base isolation.

"The tests and research performed at NCEER were critical in verifying the reliability of the FPS bearings," Zayas said. "Without the NCEER tests, the application of this product to the court would not have been possible."

For five years, UB researchers led by Michael Constantinou, Ph.D., professor of civil engineering, subjected models of buildings, bridges and floor systems equipped with the FPS to simulations of historical earthquakes on UB's shake table. They developed the computer codes necessary for evaluating the system's performance on the shake table, and provided the experimental data necessary for verifying them. They measured forces and displacements at the friction-pendulum supports installed on model structures.

Those tests showed that the isolators could reduce earthquake forces in structures so that damage is significantly reduced or eliminated.

Navin Amin, chief structural engineer with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, led the design team. Anoop S. Mokha, Ph.D., a UB graduate, and now project structural engineer with the firm, performed the analysis and design for implementing the system. His doctoral work at UB focused on seismic isolation systems, including the FPS system.

The retrofit work was completed last spring. Currently undergoing architectural renovations, the building is scheduled to reopen in the fall.

George Lee, Ph.D., director of NCEER, said that the completion of the work and the award underscore NCEER's success at transferring seismic protection technologies from the laboratory to real-world applications.

He noted that this has been a mission of the center since it was established in 1986.

"In the last couple of years, we have placed an even greater emphasis on the implementation of knowledge and the shortening of the time it takes to find applications for research," he said. "This project is representative of our efforts in this regard."

The building was chosen by a jury of nationally recognized design professionals selected by GSA in consultation with the Design Program of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The award will be presented March 9 at a reception in Washington, D.C.

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