Engineering faces the challenge of designing structures and materials resistant to the effects of natural disasters. Credit: John Middelkoop.

  • Tungsteno

ENGINEERING SOLUTIONS FOR DEALING WITH NATURAL DISASTERS

ISABEL RUBIO | Tungsteno

Natural disasters caused more than 10,000 deaths worldwide in 2018. The passage of Hurricane Katrina across parts of the United States in 2005, the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010 and the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 are just some of the worst natural disasters of the 21st century. In addition to the human cost, there is a cost to the global economy of approximately $520 billion dollars each year, according to the UN. Nowadays, making homes and buildings resilient to these disasters is a big challenge. For this reason, engineers from all over the world are designing buildings and materials capable of coping with all types of natural disasters.

Different projects are being developed that aim to provide buildings with greater robustness and safety. For example, a research team from the Polytechnic University of Valencia has developed the first building in Spain to be resistant to terrorist attacks, explosions or natural disasters. They have come up with a new way of designing the corner columns that redistribute the excessive load that a building could suffer in these extreme situations. There are also different competitions to encourage the development of solutions, such as the Resilient Homes Challenge, which seeks the most sustainable architectural projects for the reconstruction of homes in areas devastated by natural disasters, such as the following:

Hurricanes

Atlantic hurricane season is just around the corner. These tropical storms with winds exceeding 119 kilometres per hour mostly hit the eastern United States, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). Various buildings around the world have been designed to deal with this type of catastrophe, such as the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. Designed by the Swiss firm Hezog & de Meuron, this centre protects its art pieces and relies on some of the largest windows in the world to resist the impacts of strong winds.

In recent years, materials have also been created that serve to strengthen buildings against these natural phenomena. One example, created by researchers at McGill University (Canada), is flexible glass, which is 200 times stronger than standard glass. This material absorbs impacts better and bends slightly instead of breaking. Ultra-high-performance concrete (UHPC), which has much greater durability than traditional concretes, may also be useful.

Proposals such as the Tidal House, seek to provide solutions capable of withstanding the harsh weather conditions. Credit: Terry & Terry Architecture.

Earthquakes

Every year more than 100,000 tremors are felt by humans in some part of the world, some of which have devastating effects on buildings. As a result, as with hurricanes, new materials have emerged to prevent some of the worst effects. For example, in Taiwan, a seismic zone in the world that requires special measures for construction, researchers have developed a new type of reinforced concrete that, being up to twice as strong as traditional concrete, allows the height of buildings to be doubled. Only Japan has a similar technology, according to the Taiwanese Central News Agency.

There are also student-led projects, such as the one that has won an international competition organised by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI). Its authors, students from the Dominican Republic, have designed a 19-storey building in Vancouver (Canada) able to resist a possible future earthquake caused by the underwater fault of Cascadia.

Fire

The use of fire-resistant materials in construction can save lives and prevent the spread of fire. Examples include plasterboard, stucco, brick, concrete or fire-resistant glass. Another solution is to use fire curtains, found for example in state museums such as El Prado. In addition to preventing the spread of fire, they are able to deploy autonomously or be programed with different settings.

In recent years, technological systems have also been developed that warn of the danger of fire even before it has broken out. They utilise cameras with thermal sensors that identify temperature variations, crucial in the early detection of fires. These devices can be effective, for example, in company warehouses.

The Elevating House is an experimental house that could rise on jacks above flood waters. Credit: Larkfleet Group.

Floods

Floods are the most damaging natural disaster in Spain. According to the Insurance Compensation Consortium and the Spanish Geological and Mining Institute, the damage they cause is estimated to reach 800 million euros annually. A group of Malaysian researchers believe they have come up with a partial solution: walls of plants growing in coconut peat. This kind of plant wall, they say, can absorb the run-off from roofs and thus reduce the intensity of flash flooding.

Experiments are also underway with houses capable of being raised above ground level when the risk of flooding is predicted. An example of this is the Elevating House, designed by Larkfleet Group, which can be raised up to 1.5 metres above ground level. Other researchers are working on the construction of floating buildings. For example, the American firm Terry & Terry Architecture has designed a house that adjusts its height and adapts to weather or tidal conditions. These houses can be very useful in preventing floods, torrents and currents from sweeping away everything around them. By 2060, more than 1 billion people worldwide will live in cities at risk of flooding, according to a study by the organization Christian Aid. For this reason, it is important to continue looking for solutions that can deal with flooding and all kinds of natural disasters with 100% effectiveness.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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