Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Building codes may underestimate risks due to multiple hazards

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (US Department of Commerce): As large parts of the nation recover from nature's one-two punch—an earthquake followed by Hurricane Irene—building researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) warn that a double whammy of seismic and wind hazards can increase the risk of structural damage to as much as twice the level implied in building codes.

This is because current codes consider natural hazards individually, explains NIST's Dat Duthinh, a research structural engineer. So, if earthquakes rank as the top threat in a particular area, local codes require buildings to withstand a specified seismic load. In contrast, if hurricanes or tornadoes are the chief hazard, homes and buildings must be designed to resist loads up to an established maximum wind speed.

In a timely article published in the Journal of Structural Engineering, Duthinh, NIST Fellow Emil Simiu and Chiara Crosti (now at the University of Rome) challenge this compartmentalized approach. They show that in areas prone to both seismic and wind hazards, such as South Carolina, the risk that design limits will be exceeded can be as much as twice the risk in regions where only one hazard occurs, even accounting for the fact that these multiple hazards almost never occur simultaneously. As a consequence, buildings designed to meet code requirements in these double-jeopardy locations "do not necessarily achieve the level of safety implied," the researchers write.

Simiu explains by analogy: a motorcycle racer who takes on a second job as a high-wire performer. "By adding this new occupation, the racer increases his risk of injury, even though the timing and nature of the injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident or in a high-wire mishap may differ," he says. "Understandably, an insurer would raise the premium on a personal injury policy to account for the higher level of risk."...

Wind zone map shows how the frequency and strength of extreme windstorms vary across the United States. Wind speeds in Zone IV (red), where the risk of extreme windstorms is greatest, can be as high as 250 miles per hour. Credit: Federal Emergency Management Agency

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