Natural disasters are an unavoidable reality of life on Earth, but it is only in recent decades that the likelihood of catastrophic events taking place has been considered as part of the design and construction of buildings.
With that in mind, here are just a few of the most impressive technologies and feats of engineering that have been deployed to make modern structures safer, more stable and less likely to suffer serious damage in a range of disastrous scenarios.
Earthquakes are one of the most common issues that must be considered when creating skyscrapers as well as lower-lying structures. In the case of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which is currently the world’s tallest building, resistance to the effects of earthquakes is especially important.
The architects behind this imposing creation took great pains to ensure exceptional stiffness was achieved in all relevant directions, so that lateral movements, as well as torsional ones, would be counteracted rather than allowed to get out of control.
Each of the floors of the building is mechanically mounted to an outer layer of columns which provide support and help take the weight of the gargantuan structure, while the hexagonal hub that forms the centre delivers further sturdiness and strength.
Indeed the need to meet minimum mandated earthquake-survival requirements was rolled out across the UAE back in 2013, three years after the Burj Khalifa opened its doors. Hopefully, this skyscraper will prove itself worthy if it is ever hit with an especially strong quake.
Soaring over the bright lights of Dubai, the Burj Khalifa is rugged and resistant to tremors.
In parts of the world where seismic activity is more commonplace, designing and constructing buildings to stay in one piece when quakes strike is essential. In the case of Taipei 101, a skyscraper located in Taiwan, a more active approach is taken.
Shrouded within the body of the building itself is a vast damping system that consists of a hugely weighty ball of metal attached to a series of cable supports, like those of an electric hoist, and a pneumatic suspension array. This so-called tuned mass damper is basically designed to act much like a suspension solution found in the average car, albeit on a much larger scale.
When the vibrations of an earthquake begin to hit the building, they are absorbed by the ball as it is cushioned by the damping arms, effectively equalising the effects. The ball itself weighs in at 660 tonnes and is not just important in an earthquake context, but also when the hugely powerful winds of passing typhoons lash against the building’s structure.
Towering over the city, Taipei 101 is built to weather any storm.
American Copper Buildings
Flooding is another of the natural disasters that pose a serious problem for any architects hoping to create compelling structures which are not just easy on the eye but also suited to whatever challenges might be thrown at them by the weather.
This was at the top of the agenda at the time that New York City’s American Copper Buildings were being developed since the effects of a hurricane had left many riverfront properties in their proposed neighbourhood in a poor state and it was recognised that such a situation would likely occur again further down the line.
Various steps were taken as a result; the lobby is resistant to the rising floodwaters, as is the basement that sits below street level, the parkland which surrounds the buildings is landscaped in a way that will create drainage and pull debris away from access points and many key systems within the buildings are located on floors that will keep them high and dry, whatever the weather.
The buildings even feature generators which will be able to ensure that residents still receive power for lighting and heat even if the mains connection is knocked out by flooding.
The architects of this particular project realised that with global temperatures on the rise and climate change showing no signs of slowing down any time soon, it would be churlish to ignore evidence pointing to an increase in extreme weather events.
The unusual aesthetics of the American Copper Buildings mask a super-resilient design.
Japan’s Sea Walls
Experts agree that while you can account for certain types of natural disaster, the effects of tsunami-scale flooding are very difficult to deal with when limited by the bounds of practicality in residential and commercial construction contexts. The hugely powerful onslaught of oceanic water is enough to wear away the important structural features of buildings even if they are well protected against normal flooding, so it makes sense to try and prevent killer waves from making significant landfall in the first place.
In Japan, the aftermath of the devastating 2011 tsunami spurred on the construction of sea walls in many coastal regions to act as a barrier and ideally save lives whenever the next waves hit.
Prior to this disaster, there were sea walls in place, but they were just four metres high, which did little to stop the sea from swamping vast areas of heavily populated land. Today, the sea walls tower at 12.5 metres high in some areas, with viewing windows integrated at intervals to allow passers-by to look through and see what is beyond.
Clearly, there has been a compromise necessary to create these life-saving structures, since their height and length means that much of the natural beauty of certain regions has been tarnished, or indeed rendered inaccessible to residents and visitors. However, with at least 20,000 people thought to have been killed as a result of the last serious tsunami, this is a price that many believe is worth paying to prevent future hardships.
You can see that sometimes elegant solutions to natural disasters are found, while in other cases a blunter, less attractive but no less effective route has to be taken. In the case of Japan’s newly fortified sea walls, the decision to build them came about as almost a knee-jerk reaction to a national tragedy. If more time had been available or more thought put into it, perhaps the results might have been seen as satisfactory by a larger proportion of the local population.
Image Source: Jeshoots-com, Pexels, Shinya Suzuki, Nelo Otsuma