UBC researcher looks to shake up disaster resilience technology
Tobber: Canada’s builders should embrace disaster resilient building techniques and materials.
Lisa Tobber is an engineering professor and an expert in disaster-resilient buildings. – UBC
Lisa Tobber is on a mission to transform Canada’s built environment to withstand catastrophic earthquakes. But it’s going to require the construction sector to transform as well.
Tobber is a civil engineering professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan’s School of Engineering (UBC) where she leads a research group that is investigating how to design and construct disaster-resilient buildings.
“One thing that always struck me is that the construction industry is very slow to do any research and development compared to other sectors,” said Tobber. “We are in a situation where we are having to build more sustainably, meet targets and mitigate disaster damage. We also have to build more quickly due to the housing crisis. Our old, traditional way of building will not work anymore.”
Tobber is particularly interested in concrete – a material of choice in high-rise buildings for its durability and versatility.
Tobber was recently awarded the BC Housing Professorship in Resilient Reinforced Concrete Buildings. The two-year professorship will focus on the following topics:
- Seismic and wind performance of typical reinforced concrete buildings in B.C.
- Solutions for maintaining functionality of reinforced concrete structures after strong earthquakes.
- Seismic design methods for precast concrete construction for mid-rise and high-rise buildings.
- Structural performance of new concrete materials (i.e. green concretes, recycled concrete, ultra-high strength) in B.C. building construction.
- Practical design of connections for hybrid systems (using different materials for lateral-force resisting systems and gravity force-resisting systems) in BC building construction.
- Identifying specific challenges faced by reinforced concrete buildings in terms of climate adaptation.
- Identifying other possible research areas and create interdisciplinary collaboration (i.e., air quality, equitability, energy efficiency).
The research is expected to result in multiple reports, best practices and webinars.
Tobber explained that while concrete is long-lasting, it is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and concrete construction is time consuming and requires specialized labour.
The research will look at ways to reduce the environmental impact of concrete construction while creating more resilient structures through the seismic design of precast buildings, using hybrid systems, integrating new and more sustainable kinds of concrete materials and adopting earthquake-resilient structural systems and technologies. One solution she’s investigating is the use of innovative coupling beams and damped outrigger systems that dissipate energy and reduce damage to core walls.
These and other technologies are being co-developed through a three-year, $6.6-million research partnership with the TEBO Group, an international engineering procurement and construction provider, with the aim of raising best practices in sustainable, resilient building construction.
Tobbert is able to conduct tests at a high bay lab with a crane and thick concrete floor. This allows for large-scale tests which can show how well materials and methods hold up. Then researchers use that data in computer models to see how a whole building would behave.
Tobber explained that shifting the built environment now will pay dividends in the future, not only saving lives but preventing damage that could cripple a region.
“The current way we design buildings absorbs the earthquake through damage,” she said. “People can escape but the building may not be able to be occupied for years.”
Research by the Insurance Bureau of Canada suggests that B.C. could face $75 billion in earthquake damage and Tobber noted that recent floods in B.C. show how a disaster can bring a region’s infrastructure to a halt. But it goes far beyond B.C.
“We don’t just have to design for earthquakes in Vancouver,” she said. “We have to do it across Canada. On the West Coast it’s talked about the most but we have seismic hazards across Canada we have to design for.”
Tobber noted that other countries with seismic risks have already implemented high-tech systems.
“A great example is base isolation where buildings sit on bearings,” she said. “This decouples the building from the earthquake and it can make your building basically damage free. This technology has been around for decades and has been implemented a lot in places like Japan.”
Tobber said she often wonders why the construction industry isn’t innovating or adopting technologies like this. She encouraged the sector to be more proactive.
“What we often do in construction is we wait for the policy to change and then we react to it but research gives us the opportunity to be proactive,” she said. “Let’s drive those changes and let’s push the solutions.”