UPV researchers devise a new building design method that avoids catastrophic collapses


Ciudad Politécnica de la Innovación

A team from the ICITECH Institute at the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV) has published in Nature the latest results of their "radical" proposal to create ultra-resistant buildings capable of withstanding extreme situations caused by natural disasters—floods, landslides, etc.—explosions, aging, or inadequate maintenance and conservation. This proposal adds a final line of defense to the structural design of buildings to prevent catastrophic collapses.

The new method is inspired by how lizards protect themselves from predators by shedding their tails when attacked.

Current design methods are based on improving connectivity between structural components. If any component fails, this connectivity allows the loads carried by the failed components to be redistributed to the rest of the structural system. Although these methods are effective for minor initial failures, they can increase the risk of progressive collapse after major initial failures, leading to complete or large-scale collapses. This was the case, for example, with the Champlain Towers and the building collapse in Peñíscola in 2021, or in the Iranian city of Abadan in 2022. The proposal from UPV's ICITECH aims to prevent such outcomes.

“Our novel design method provides a solution to overcome this alarming limitation and achieve more resilient buildings, capable of isolating the collapse to only the part of the structure that experienced the initial failure, thereby safeguarding the rest of the building. The new design method has been verified through a test on a real building. Therefore, it is the first solution against the propagation of collapses in buildings after major initial failures that has been tested and verified at full scale. Applying the new design method will prevent catastrophic collapses, thus protecting human lives and minimizing material costs that a complete structural collapse would entail,” emphasizes José M. Adam, co-author of the publication with Nirvan Makoond, Andri Setiawan, and Manuel Buitrago, all members of UPV’s ICITECH.

Structural “fuses” prevent total collapse

The key to the method devised by the UPV team lies in using the concept of structural fuses, which isolate the damaged parts of a building to prevent the spread of major failures throughout the construction.

“This new philosophy is similar to how electrical networks protect against overloads by connecting different segments of the grid with electrical fuses. With our designs, the building maintains structural continuity under normal operating conditions but segments when the spread of a failure is inevitable, thus reducing the scope of the collapse and preventing total failure,” explains Nirvan Makoond.

“The implementation of the method will have a minimal, if not negligible, impact on the structure's cost, as it uses conventional construction details and materials,” notes Andri Setiawan.

In its current state of development, the new design by these researchers can be applied to practically any new building. “Its effectiveness has been verified and demonstrated for buildings with precast concrete structures. We are currently working on applying the methodology to buildings constructed with in-situ concrete and steel structures,” concludes Manuel Buitrago.

Validated in a pioneering global test

The development of this new design method is one of the most notable results to date of the Endure project, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) with a Consolidator Grant of over 2.5 million euros. It was within the framework of this project that a pioneering global test was conducted last June, allowing the validation of its performance. The tests were carried out on a full-scale building, in which a major initial failure in the structure was isolated to one part of the building, preventing its spread to the entire structure. It is noteworthy that the research is conducted 100% at UPV, with all four authors of the publication also being UPV researchers.

Nature cover

Nature has featured the work of the ICITECH team from UPV on the cover of today's issue. Moreover, this is the first time the journal has published a research article in the field of building design and construction.

First steps thanks to a project funded by the BBVA Foundation

The seed of this project came from a Leonardo Grant awarded by the BBVA Foundation to José M. Adam in 2017. Now, seven years later, the ICITECH-UPV researcher continues with this revolutionary project, supported by the European Research Council, which will allow for the construction of safer buildings and save human lives.

Endure will run until 2026 in the structures laboratory at UPV’s ICITECH, one of the largest in Europe for testing large structural elements.