Shake Zayed Road

Yesterday residents of the UAE we all excited about the occurence of an earthquake in Iran which was felt by those in the northern emirates and part of Dubai.

This is interesting for me, because the company I signed up with before it was bought out by my present company were one of the world leaders in seismic engineering. In the first year in the job, I was building finite element models of nuclear power stations or the equipment inside and subjecting them to seismic accelerations to calculate forces and displacements at various places. As part of my training, I was sent on an earthquake engineering course in Glasgow, one of the lecturers of which was a very interesting and excitable young chap who knew his subject well: designing structuress to withstand earthquakes. I have long since chucked the course notes, but the one thing which stuck in my mind was his tales of how the seismic engineering consultants used to have furious rows with the architects over the design of the buildings.

The reason for this is that in order for buildings to stand a good chance of surviving an earthquake intact, they must have a uniform stiffness throughout their structure. In layman’s terms, this means they must be as boring as the stuff the Soviets used to throw up: regularly shaped, evenly shaped, every floor the same as all the others. So, no fancy flarings on the sides, no 3-storey atriums half way up, no spectacular sculptures on the roof, no bridges linking two otherwise separate towers. Numerous models were shown during the course showing what effect a “soft spot” in a building can have, plus several photos of collapsed buildings whose failure mechanisms were remarkably similar to those flapping about on the computer simulations.

And with the look of some of the buildings going up in Dubai, I wonder if any of the architects have bothered seeing how their piles of glass and cement behave when subjected to multi-directional accelerations from deep within the earth. I doubt it. I’m glad I’ll be living in my nice, square, uniform, 7-storey apartment block with a pool on the roof.

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