ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- When disaster strikes, people evacuate. That's because the structures that normally protect us -- buildings, bridges, dams, and tunnels -- are often the most dangerous places to be during catastrophes like hurricanes, earthquakes, industrial accidents, or terrorist attacks.
Rudy Matalucci, a civil engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., wants people to feel compelled to run into buildings rather than out of them during emergencies.
Matalucci leads a group of researchers working with government agencies, professional associations, and universities to use technology to examine the vulnerabilities of structures and identify changes in architectural designs, building codes, and construction standards so future structures might better withstand the kinds of insults that we worry about but don't plan for.
Sandia has for decades applied advanced technology and sound security principles to the exacting task of making U.S. nuclear weapons as safe, secure, and reliable as possible, an expertise Labs officials call "surety." Sandia now wants many of the surety lessons learned during the Cold War -- how to make a building that protects nuclear materials resistant to a bomb blast or secure against a would-be saboteur, for instance -- to be applied to the challenge of making public buildings, homes, and other structures safer. Sandia calls the program its Architectural SuretySM initiative.
"We aren't advocating turning buildings into bunkers," says Dennis Miyoshi, Director of Sandia's Security Systems and Technology Center. "What we want is for building designers to ask, "What are the greatest threats to this structure and what can be done about them given the costs?"
Getting Beyond Building Codes
Terrorism in particular has forced a wider focus on the vulnerabilities of public buildings. In the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, for instance, most of the victims were killed not by the blast but by flying glass and falling concrete. "It has reinforced the thinking that a whole structure shouldn't depend on a few structural elements," he says.
Matalucci thinks much more examination needs to be done of other types of structures -- malls, post offices, dams, highway overpasses, corporate centers, embassies. "We need to start asking, "If I'm a crazy guy or a disgruntled employee, can I get to that?"
The vast majority of threats to structures don't come from terrorists, however. A rash of costly natural disasters and industrial accidents in recent years has forced builders and insurers to consider a variety of disaster-mitigation measures as well. And in older cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, deteriorating buildings and bridges, leaking tunnels, and unreliable levees and pipelines may be ripe for catastrophic failure.
Meeting the prescriptive legal requirements contained in the building codes is not enough anymore, Matalucci says. His goal is to have architects, engineers, owners, regulators, insurance companies, and attorneys sit down to review the broader range of threats and vulnerabilities for each new building up front. "We need to think beyond the building codes," he says. "No city has a code for terrorists.
Modern Technology For Modern Buildings
Technology can help, he says. Already Sandia engineers and researchers have applied a range of technological tools to the problem of creating safer, more secure, and more reliable buildings and city infrastructures.
For the New Mexico Highway and Transportation Department, Sandia has helped check steel girders embedded in concrete in an interstate bridge -- using vibration to reveal hidden flaws without tearing the structure apart. The technique could help reveal flaws and deterioration in many structure types.
To study building performance during hurricanes, earthquakes, and other structure-stressing events, Sandia has developed set of computer-linked instruments that records subtle structural movements. The system may help identify weaknesses in typical structures and lead to better built homes.
A series of explosives tests since 1997 has looked at how window panes fracture in a bombing and how window frames transfer blast loads to the structure. The tests may lead to new types of glass that disintegrate into sand-like fragments that would cause the fewest injures to a building's occupants.
Last year Sandia security experts advised the architect of the new federal courthouse in Albuquerque on ways to make the building more resistant to terrorist attack. The seven-story building includes a variety of design features and security technologies to deter or mitigate an attack.
Using Computers To Debug Structures
Today's computing capabilities are providing an unprecedented opportunity to design better buildings, as well, Matalucci says.
Sandia computer scientists have combined two computer programs originally developed for nuclear weapons work -- one that simulates blast physics and another that simulates structural response -- into a single program that, with the help of a supercomputer, can model in 3-D what happens to a building in a bomb blast. Another program models how fire spreads through a building.
Designers might one day use similar programs to quickly and cheaply test layouts, construction materials, and disaster-mitigation approaches against the new threats before actually constructing a building.
"We want to use computers to test how a roof would fly off a building in a hurricane, understand why levees break, model how floors collapse in a gas explosion," he adds. "We ought to be able to tell you whether you'd survive a blast 10 floors below you in a hotel. This is technology that exists today." Modern-day virtual reality tools might also contribute to making buildings safer. "You could put yourself inside a building during a bombing," he says. "You could train for emergency operations. You could see if you have enough security cameras in place to catch an intruder."
Sandia also wants to develop a set of risk management tools tailored specifically for architectural issues, Matalucci says. Risk management can help designers identify design changes that would bring the greatest benefits for the lowest cost based on the likelihood of threats to each new building, he says. Ultimately, he says, technologies might become part of "smart buildings" in which computers continuously monitor the heating, cooling, lighting, electricity, water supplies, and computer systems of a building. Tiny sensors on computer chips might be embedded in the superstructures of skyscrapers or bridges to record stresses, temperature changes, and other structural-health indicators.
Building A National Constituency
Matalucci's approach is to help architects, contractors, regulatory agencies, and insurance companies see the benefits of applying technology and surety principles to the business of building better buildings.
He is teaching courses on Architectural SuretySM at the University of New Mexico and hopes to develop a standardized course outline and provide it to interested faculty at universities with progressive architecture and civil engineering programs.
Sandia has hosted and discussed the applicability of Architectural SuretySM with representatives of the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Institute of Architects, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Electric Power Research Institute (the research arm of the electric power industry), and Institute for Business and Home Safety.
Matalucci is involved in projects with the U.S. Interagency Forum on Infrastructure Protection and with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Tennessee Valley Authority, and Bonneville Power Authority to evaluate threats to the 1,000-plus federal dams in the United States and develop better security approaches to protect them.
And recently Sandia discussed the vulnerability of federal buildings with the GSA's Federal Protective Service.
"We are starting to make inroads with the agencies that are expected to deal with these new threats," Matalucci says. "This is something Sandia is doing in the national interest."
Sandia is a multiprogram Department of Energy laboratory operated by Lockheed Martin Corporation. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has R&D programs contributing to national defense, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.
For more information about Sandia's Architectural SuretySM initiative, see http://www.sandia.gov/archsur. This news release and a downloadable color photo are available at http://www.sandia.gov/media/archsurety.htm
Materials provided by Sandia National Laboratories. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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