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Engineers Shake Tallest Full-scale Building Ever Constructed on UC San Diego Earthquake Simulator

The 10-story tower was tested on the UC San Diego NSF-funded outdoor shake table, one of the two largest shake tables in the world

View of the 10-story mass timber building from below.
The 10-story mass timber building is the tallest full scale building to be tested on an earthquake simulator. Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego. Videos by Sapna Parikh, Daniel Orren, David Baillot, Mark Liu, Yao Lan /UC San Diego.

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What happens when a 10-story tall building is put to the test on the only outdoor shake table in the world? That is what a group of engineers came together to find out on May 9 as part of the Tallwood project conducted on UC San Diego's National Science Foundation-funded earthquake simulator. 

The Tallwood building is the tallest full-scale building ever to be constructed and tested on an earthquake simulator. On Tuesday, the building underwent simulations of two of the most destructive earthquakes in recent history: the first test was the equivalent of the 6.7 magnitude 1994 Northridge earthquake, the second the equivalent of the 7.7 magnitude Chi Chi earthquake that took place in Taiwan in 1999. The series of tests is funded by the NSF. 

Get a glimpse of the Tallwood project and see the researchers test the 10-story building in the photos and videos below.

View of the 10-story building on the earthquake simulator.
The UC San Diego earthquake simulator is one of the two largest shake tables in the world. With the support of $17 million in NSF funding, the table was recently upgraded to move from 1D to 3D. Now, moving in six degrees of freedom, the table can reproduce realistic earthquake ground motions including east to west, up and down, north to south, roll, pitch and yaw.

Prior to each test, Professor of Structural Engineering Joel Conte announced on a loudspeaker the countdown for each earthquake simulation as engineers eagerly awaited the impact of the 6.7 and 7.7 magnitude shakes on the building. Conte is the principal investigator of the UC San Diego shake table experimental facility upgrade as well as operation and maintenance projects. 

After each earthquake simulation, researchers examined the building to assess for damage. “It performed exactly as we expected — the building remained damage free after two major design-level earthquakes back to back,” said Shiling Pei, associate professor at Colorado School of Mines and lead investigator on the NHERI Tallwood Project. 

Conte called the tests “historic,” emphasizing how the Tallwood building was the tallest structure to ever be tested on a shake table. 

In this video, you can hear and see how the building reacted to the 6.7 and 7.7 magnitude earthquake simulations.
Close-up of the building structure.
The 10-story building is made of cross-laminated timber, which is a material that is increasingly popular in architecture and construction as an alternative to concrete and steel. One of the goals of the Tallwood project is to test how high-rises made from this mass timber construction material perform in earthquakes.
Two researchers look up at the building.
The shake table is part of NSF’s Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure network (NHERI) and is located at the Englekirk Structural Engineering Center in San Diego. There are currently eight NHERI facilities designed to support natural hazards engineering research, advancing innovation for mitigating damage from earthquakes, windstorms, tsunamis and more.
View of the top floors of the 10-story building.
Researchers tested a low-damage lateral system that enables resilient performance, which means the building will have minimal damage from design level earthquakes and can be repaired quickly after an earthquake. Featuring a rocking wall system, the building’s wood wall panels are anchored down by steel rods, designed to create a more seismic resilient structure. The panels rock back and forth, reducing the earthquake impact. The tension of the rods helps bring the building back to plumb. 
Researchers inside the building.
The project also analyzed the performance of other non-structural components, including four unique exterior façade assemblies, interior walls and a 10-story stair tower. 

"So far, I am very confident that we will not see damage to this system at this level of earthquakes,” said Pei, following the series of simulations.

Two of the lead researchers on the NSF-funded Tallwood project talk about the impact of the two shakes the 10-story full-scale mass timber building experienced May 9, 2023.
Researcher peers outside standing on an upper floor of the building.
There were over 800 sensors deployed on the 10-story tower, which provide data needed to help design buildings that are safer in strong earthquakes and to make changes in design codes for commercial and residential structures. There were also cameras recording footage from the inside of the building to assess the impact. 
Professor of Structural Engineering Joel Conte.
“With this data, the researchers are able to develop, calibrate and validate the computational model that engineers in the real world use to design buildings and bridges and so on,” said Conte. 
Researchers and project-affiliated viewers watch the project tests with phones in hand.
Researchers and project-affiliated viewers watched on as the building reacted to the earthquake simulations. The conclusion of each test was met with a round of applause.

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