PreviousNext

Imagining, and Measuring, the Unimaginable

At the Center for Architecture, On View by • 03/05

Humans have been studying earthquakes scientifically for about 2,000 years, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory geophysicist Dr. Klaus Jacob says, ever since Han Dynasty-era polymath Zhang Heng invented the first seismometer so that the Emperor would know about distant earthquakes before the news reached him by messengers on horseback. Now we have multiple networks, like the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, the U.S. Geological Survey, and overseas equivalents, linked and sharing information. Knowing a quake is likely doesn’t equate to predicting its timing, but the state of knowledge about locations, depths, and magnitudes helps the design and construction professions prepare for these probabilistic events and mitigate damage.

Jacob may be better known in recent years as the expert who presciently warned New Yorkers about the risks of flooding, proven accurate in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. He’s also the first-call seismologist for anyone needing detailed analyses of the risks of a major quake in New York, an event that strikes with far less warning. Jacob spoke at the inaugural panel of the Design for Risk and Reconstruction (DfRR) Committee in October 2011; his return engagement on the first DfRR panel linked with the “Considering the Quake” exhibition reminded the audience that, although we have come to know a great deal about these events, “it’s good… not to talk about the last, but the next disaster.” Jacob and his colleagues know more about these contingencies than most people would want to, at least if they ever wanted to sleep again.

There were 141,478 seismic events detected worldwide between 1960 and 2008 by the Global Seismographic Network, Jacob reported, distributed in a clear nonrandom pattern that has provided information about the movement of tectonic plates and the energy released when they grind together. The edges of the Pacific plate have the highest concentration of events and the severest events, but the Northeast has had multiple quakes over recent decades as well, mostly smaller ones with magnitudes of 5.0 or below, along very old cracks in the crust (particularly the Ramapo Fault system across eastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, and Upstate New York). New Yorkers felt the 2011 quake that was epicentered near Richmond, Virginia; East Coast geology makes quakes perceptible and hazardous hundreds of miles from their epicenter, not as localized as western quakes involving softer rock. “It’s a very low rate compared to what happens on a plate boundary, but it cannot be ignored,” he said.

Studies show “a probability within 50 years, sort of a minimum lifetime of a reasonable structure…. By the wisdom of the community in the United States, we’ve decided that 2% in a 50-year chance is sort of an acceptable level to describe the hazard,” Jacob explained. The relative rarity of East Coast quakes, he added, means the records (instrumental data plus anecdotal reports back to 1627) yield information that let us extrapolate a risk of one 6.5-magnitude quake in about 1,000 years, or one 4.9 about every 100 years, with considerable play in the figures. Severe quakes are rare here, not impossible, and the larger exposure area means the hazard is actually proportionately higher, despite the greater absolute rate in the West. This context, Jacob said, explains Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s concerns about hazards to the Indian Point nuclear power plant, built in an era when less local information was available, but now “declared the seismically most vulnerable reactor in the United States.” Earthquakes tend to trigger submarine slides and tsunamis, he added, amplifying concerns over surges like Sandy. Closing with an estimate of the exponentially increasing amounts of debris that would result from quakes of various magnitudes, Jacob exhorted architects to “make sure that this debris is minimized. That’s your task,” achievable only over decades or centuries as the city replaces its building stock.

Sissy Nikolaou, Ph.D., PE, M.ASCE, of Mueser Rutledge and the Geotechnical Extreme Event Reconnaissance (GEER) project, presented dramatic video and still images, including recent material from the Greek island of Cephalonia, where quakes destroy buildings about every 30 years, as well as more publicized events like the 1995 quake in Kobe, Japan. She outlined several prevalent misconceptions (e.g., that the harder rock of the New York area, compared to the younger crust of the West Coast, makes us quakeproof; what it does is transmit shock waves further) and clarified important distinctions, particularly between hazard and risk (the latter involves the economic value of assets destroyed and can be massive in places like New York, which produces 9% of the U.S. economy, even if physical seismic hazard is only moderate). Assessing vulnerability to “the three D’s” of downtime, damage, and death, calls for some counterintuitive recognition, she noted, particularly that “building stronger is not always better.” Protective strategies need to consider soil structure, liquefaction risk, and resonance, ensuring that buildings do not resonate at similar frequencies; a building atop deep, soft deposits is a worst-case scenario, and the Mets’ Citifield – built, she said, on “100 feet of mushy stuff, that when you shake it, behaves like Jello in a bowl” – is consequently designed to an extraordinarily strict seismic standard. Chinatown buildings, too, sited above the Collect Pond once used for potable water, require extra-deep foundations.

Ramon Gilsanz, PE, of Gilsanz Murray Steficek, described seismic events through a musical metaphor: if an earthquake resembles the score, the soil is the player transmitting the vibration, and a building is the instrument that plays it. Engineering approaches to minimizing these destructive performances can recognize a building’s distinctive resonance and plan for damping the “sound” in any of several ways. Chilean engineers, working in a highly vulnerable zone, strengthen buildings with interior shear walls; the Japanese approach is to try to keep the instrument from being played at all by isolating a building’s base from the soil with enormous (and expensive) shock absorbers, aiming to minimize damage enough for nearly immediate occupancy. In the U.S., a cost-effective approach prevails, allowing structures to deform and designing only for life safety, not prompt reoccupancy. Much of the worst damage, Gilsanz noted, occurs after a quake, not during it: in the 1906 San Francisco quake, only 3-5% of the buildings were directly damaged, but fire caused far worse destruction.

SUNY Buffalo civil-engineering chair Andrew Whittaker’s presentation (titled “Won’t Happen Here,” but making no such assertion; a question mark appears implicit) went into detail about the consequences when it does happen. Having lived through two quakes personally in California in 1989 and 1994, he is under no illusions that it is strictly a “left coast problem”. Earthquakes here are inevitable (though perhaps not in any given lifetime), resilience is essential, and the most pressing risk involves “non-engineered building structures,” built before codes were in place or not designed up to code. In New York, unreinforced masonry (URM) is the norm in Federal Era buildings, row houses built between the 1830s and about 1940, many schools, and even firehouses (the risk that firefighters’ own buildings could collapse and trap fire vehicles during a general disaster, he noted, calls for urgent attention). Quake-prone New Zealand, he noted, “substantially underestimated the hazard” before the 2011 Christchurch event, and many URM buildings were damaged to the red-tag level, requiring demolition. Engineered buildings’ protective attributes include lateral resistance, lateral load paths, continuity in floor plates, and redundancy; the Applied Technology Council’s ATC-58 standard, on which Whittaker participated, allows engineers and architects to design for specific levels of risk. An easily overlooked consideration, he added, is the risk from nonstructural components (e.g., ceilings, partitions, elevators, and internal goods), simply “stuff” that also breaks and moves, and that constitutes about 98% of losses in quakes. “Keep in mind,” he noted, “that costs associated with business interruption often far exceed the repair costs.” Imagining a 5.8-magnitude quake striking Manhattan, Whittaker described a staggering cascade of fires, homelessness, impacts on physical infrastructure and social systems, and loss of life.

The Q&A segment included an important and often-overlooked scenario, in a question by DfRR Co-chair Joan Capelin: the phenomenon of induced earthquakes, including those resulting from hydraulic fracturing for fossil fuels as well as quarrying. Both practices have been associated with seismic events, panelists noted, and the fluids pumped into the ground for fracking create additional toxic hazards underground. “When you mess around with Mother Earth,” Jacob summarized, “it often comes around to haunt you if you don’t understand the process.”

Event: Are We on Shaky Ground? Earthquakes and New York City
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.27.2014
Speakers: Dr. Klaus H. Jacob, Geophysicist, Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Dr. Sissy Nikolaou, PE, Senior Associate and Director, Geo-Seismic Department, Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers; Ramon Gilsanz, PE, SEI Fellow, Founding Partner, Gilsanz Murray Steficek (GMS) and Chair, NYC DOB Structural Technical Committee responsible for the 2014 NYC Building Code revision; Dr. Andrew E. Whittaker, Director, SUNY Buffalo (UB) Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research and Chair, UB Department of Civil, Structural & Environmental Engineering
Organizers: Center for Architecture, AIANY Design for Risk & Reconstruction Committee, and the New York–Northeast (NYNE) Chapter of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI)

Comments are closed.

Tweet-for-Treat! We'll be at Samsung 837 on 98.29.16 giving away free ice cream!
Archtober Tweet-for-Treat! Editor's Note
Borinquen Court affordable and senior housing center in The Bronx, by Red Top Architects.
Aging in Place Policy Pulse
A rendering of J. MAYER H. und Partner, Architekten's latest project, XXX TIMES SQUARE WITH LOVE.
Jürgen Mayer H. Speaks on Reactivating Public Space in Times Square and Beyond At the Center for Architecture
FIGMENT: What Is This? Why Is Nothing for Sale? Why Is Everyone Smiling? by David Koren.
Oculus Book Review: FIGMENT: What Is This? Why Is Nothing for Sale? Why Is Everyone Smiling? Book Reviews
Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity by Mario Gooden, AIA.
Oculus Podcast: Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity Podcast
1 - Grafting an Expansion on a Landmark
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
The AIANY COTE Awards recognize results-oriented achievements in the urban context. Deadline 09.16.15
New Deadlines New Deadlines
“EXTRA-ORDINARY: New Practices in Chilean Architecture,” through 09.03.16.
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
Lower Manhattan Then map.
Mapping Lower Manhattan Center News
“Tentolana” by Tom Krizmanic
Imagining Olana’s Summer House Reports from the Field
AIA New York State’s 2016 Design Conference
Come, Collaborate: AIANYS 2016 Design Conference AIA News You Can Use
DOB NOW Continues Expansion Policy Pulse
Malik Knight, a second-year student at Philadelphia University, volunteered to assist students in developing their projects over the two week studio.
When Does the Education of an Architect Begin? Learning by Design
A spread from the winning student journal sofA.
2016 Douglas Haskell Award for Student Journals Recipients Center News
The Center for Architecture's annual Golf Classic took place at Winged Foot Golf Club.
Architects Teed Off at Winged Foot Reports from the Field
1 - Prescription for Practicing in the 21st Century
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
09.16.16: Call for Entries: AIANY COTE Awards 2016
New Deadlines New Deadlines
“EXTRA-ORDINARY: New Practices in Chilean Architecture,” through 09.03.16
On View On View
08.02.16: At the AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s “Layered: Data and Representation in Infrastructure and Design,” speakers discussed how data can be accessed and used to inform design decisions and engage in policy discussions. (l-r) Luc Wilson, Associate Principal, Director, KPF Urban Interface; Shannon Mattern, Ph.D., Associate Professor, School of Media Studies, The New School; Ben Wellington, Ph.D., Quantitative Data Analyst, Two Sigma; Visiting Assistant Professor, City & Regional Planning Program, Pratt Institute.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
Fast Forward From the Executive Director
AIANY Welcomes New Policy Coordinator Policy Pulse
Rendering of a possible Queens waterfront.
A Century of Zoning A Closer Look
Mario Gooden, Principal, Huff + Gooden Architects; Professor of Practice, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
Oculus Book Review: Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity by Mario Gooden Book Reviews
Students from The Neighborhood School pose with their model of One World Trade Center during a visit to SOM’s office where the model is now displayed.
Learning By Design:NY Students Visit SOM Learning by Design
1 - Festive Façade for Supportive Housing Project
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
09.16.16: Call for Entries: AIANY COTE Awards 2016
New Deadlines New Deadlines
“EXTRA-ORDINARY: New Practices in Chilean Architecture,” through 09.03.16
On View On View
07.20.16: Susan Szenasy, Hon. AIANY, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher of Metropolis, toasted the magazine’s 35th anniversary at Seaport Studios.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
Chilean architect Smiljan Radic presented insights into his very personal creative process.
Notes on Smiljan Radic At the Center for Architecture
DOB NOW Policy Pulse
Center for Architecture Announces 2016 Walter A. Hunt, Jr. Scholarship Winner Center News
"EXTRA-ORDINARY: New Practices in Chilean Architecture" reviewed in Wallpaper.
Center Mentions Center News
1 - Shhhhh. It's Still a Library
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
09.16.16: Call for Entries: AIANY COTE Awards 2016
New Deadlines New Deadlines
“EXTRA-ORDINARY: New Practices in Chilean Architecture,” through 09.03.16
On View On View
07.12.16: The Center for Architecture kicked off the New York City inauguration of "House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate" with a conversation between Patric Derrington, Marc Holliday Professor and Director of Real Estate Development Program, Columbia GSAPP; Reinhold Martin, Director, Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, Columbia GSAPP; and Lissa So, AIA, Founding Partner, Marvel Architects.
Sighted Sighted
Classifieds Classifieds
Alex Alaimo, AIA, AIA National Associates Committee, interviews AIANY and Center for Architecture Executive Director Benjamin Prosky.
YOUNG ARCHITECTS WANTED! From the Executive Director
Special Citation: ARE Instructors
Annual Meeting 2016 At the Center for Architecture
Lobbying Law: Amnesty Period Ends Soon! AIA News You Can Use
Closing Keynote: Understanding Neighborhood Change: Voices of a Gentrifying New York by
Eleven Years of Progress: FitCity 2016 Policy Pulse
Speakers of Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants: Critical Challenges for Sustainable Urbanization
Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants: Critical Challenges for Sustainable Urbanization From the Desk of the President
15th Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia
More than a Building: The 15th Venice Architecture Biennale Reports from the Field