Newer City Buildings Withstand Quake, Older Ones Are Cause for Concern

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Virginia Tuesday afternoon, sent city buildings swaying, but thanks to strict building codes — the ductility of newer buildings were not cause for concern. But structural engineers and architects said some of the city’s older buildings are not reinforced, and a stronger quake could have caused major damage.

“The current New York City building code design criteria is the same as you would have in San Francisco or Los Angeles for seismic events,” said Frederic Schwartz, FAIA, who designed the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, which, like every city building, reported no damage.

Schwartz said he wouldn’t be concerned about the Empire State building, but other buildings did give him pause for concern.

“I would be anxious about early modern buildings, that’s when they were pushing the envelop of building glass and thinness in relationship to seismic events,” Schwartz said. Speaking generally, he said buildings with heavy masonry, from the 1920s and 1930s, would be fine, but the skyscrapers of the 1940s and 1950s might need to be re-examined and reinforced to withstand a stronger quake.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city was investigating two reports of minor damage, but said no buildings had been declared unfit for occupancy. “Property owners should do due diligence and visually inspect buildings for cracks, and contact building management if they feel the situation warrants it,” Bloomberg said.

The largest recorded earthquake in the city was in 1884 and measured at a magnitude of 5.5.

In 1995, one year after a 4.7 magnitude quake struck near Reading, Pennsylvania, the city passed an ordinance requiring all buildings taller than three stories be designed to withstand a 5.5 magnitude earthquake.

“Every time there’s a flood, tornado, hurricane, or something like that happens, that’s how building codes change,” architect Michael Lehrer, FAIA said.” He said because this was a “benign” quake, with no reported damage, it is a great time to examine the current building codes. “Reality has just changed. It’s like something that isn’t supposed to happen, happened.”

Robert Otani, a structural engineer for Thorton Tomasetti, said the building codes in New York are already have some of the highest standards in the world. The current building code is based on the “maximum considered earthquake” or calculated to withstand the worst earthquake in 2,500 years.

“I think the biggest challenge is what to do with the existing buildings. Because there’s a substantial number of buildings in New York City that have no designed earthquake resistance,” Otani said. “As the buildings get older and older, and as the materials deteriorate over time, the problem doesn’t get any better, it gets worse.”

Otani is part of a committee that is trying to find ways to make older buildings earthquake-safe, but he said often the best possible solution is to tear down structurally unsound buildings, but “that’s pretty much impossible.” So, he’s still searching for minimally evasive solutions.


Fred Schwartz

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Comments [6]

conconcerned structural engineer from New York

I listened to this and was genuinely concerned. It should be noted that architect's do not do seismic design, the structural engineers do that work. Becuase of this a lot of what was said was misleading and incorrect. New York codes are to the same standards as California but not to the same magnitude - our design loads are significantly less. Also what was said about the safety of older buildings is untrue, as seismic events around the world would support. I think it's important that NPR carefully vet who they interview and their qualifications if you are going to avoid misinforming the public - which you just have.

Aug. 29 2011 01:27 PM
Gustavo from New York City

Do you know what is the maximum earthquake the World Financial Center (building #2 and 3#) can withstand? Are they still safe after the recent earthquake? Thanks!

Aug. 27 2011 03:32 PM
NYEng from NYC

Saying that New York City has some of the highest building code standards in the world is a bit misleading. While New York does use the IBC which is fairly standard now it is hardly one of the most advanced seismic codes - take a look at Japan, New Zealand, even Turkey. Granted, this is really not required in NY due to the very low probability of a large event here but it's good to have some humility - NYC is not at the forefront of design by any means.

A more important point is that NYC construction quality is generally extremely poor relative to other parts of this country and even compared to some other countries. Anyone who has been on a concrete site in CA vs. NYC would tell you that they are worlds apart. NY allows extremely poor workmanship and oversight although this has been improving lately. You can design for whatever you like but if the guys in the field are not detailing well then it's all for naught. Unions are in no small part responsible for this along with general decline in pride of workmanship.

Aug. 24 2011 11:32 AM

I was in my 4th-floor apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Sitting at my desk, I thought initially that I had somehow jogged my desk, then that somebody was moving something very heavy about. But it continued and got worse and there were no sounds of somebody moving. Then I felt a touch of motion sickness. "Earthquake? No way."

My building is one of _thousands_ of poorly built brick-and-wood-frame constructions in New York. We know from the resignation of Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster that developers _typically_ cut corners and _count_ on inspectors not showing, not caring, or being bought off. This is old New York history. Even supposedly socially responsible institutions, like Trinity Church, have been caught in scandals of shoddy construction.

Shoddy, substandard, and even illegal construction is the NORM in New York City. I find it very difficult to believe that Michael Bloomberg isn't well aware of this — especially given the way he tried ram down New Yorkers' throats the West Side Stadium, the Olympics, and (successfully) Atlantic Railyards.

A severe earthquake — something near and on the order of 6 or higher — in New York might well lead to _thousands_ of deaths -- most avoidable if the city would just _enforce_ existing law.

Aug. 24 2011 10:00 AM
Dan Parietti from Manhattan

I live in Washington Heights in a building built in the mid 1950's. Live on the 8th floor. Didn't feel a thing. Found out about the event from a radio broadcast on WNYC, of course.

Aug. 24 2011 09:51 AM
iSkyscraper from New York, NY

I listened to the interview this morning on WNYC with Fred Schwartz and was greatly disappointed. Not only did Fred avoid answering the questions directly, and not only did he give not-quite-correct answers, but the host had called an ARCHITECT to ask questions about an earthquake! You don't call electrical engineers to ask them what color the drapes should be, and you don't call architects to ask questions about seismic and structural design that more than likely they never took a single class in. Next time, please call an civil engineering professor or a practicing structural engineer (such as Mr. Otani at TT) for your on-air interviews.

Aug. 24 2011 09:21 AM

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