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STEM SIGHTS: The Concordian who reinforces earthquake safety

PhD candidate Mohammed Albutainy investigates the capacity of masonry systems to withstand seismic activity
September 12, 2017
By Kenneth Gibson

Very few people have died during an earthquake in Canada in modern history. Compared to the rest of the world, the country is not thought of as particularly seismically active.

One big exception to that, of course, is the Pacific Coast region. It’s the most earthquake-prone area in Canada, and there is a one-in-three chance of a catastrophic quake hitting the area in the next 50 years.

Yet, the Pacific Coast isn’t the only place in Canada predisposed to seismic activity. The Charlevoix-Kamouraska region, 100 kilometers downstream from Quebec City, is the most seismically active area in Eastern Canada.

With this in mind, researchers at Concordia’s Structures Lab in the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering are contributing to the creation of earthquake safety guidelines.

“Buildings located in these seismically active areas are prone to severe damage or collapse if they are not designed to perform well during earthquake activity,” says PhD candidate Mohammed Albutainy, who works under the supervision of Khaled E. Galal.

Albutainy’s experiments test the strength of reinforced masonry when subjected to simulated earthquake stress. His findings will inform the next update to the Canadian Standards Association protocols for designing masonry structures.

‘My study is enhancing seismic hazard safety in Canada’

How does this specific image (above) relate to your research at Concordia? 

My research investigates the performance of novel reinforced masonry systems under simulated effects of earthquakes on multi-storey buildings.

The work includes both experimental and numerical investigations. Tests will be carried out at the Structures Lab using a specialized set-up consisting of a steel frame with attached servo-hydraulic actuators for load application.* 

The test set-up will apply displacement increments in a quasi-static pattern to the masonry examples so as to observe the full lateral load behaviour expected under seismic loading.

The frame is designed to support one horizontal and two vertical actuators (machines that simulate the movement caused by an earthquake). This allows me to test the critical zone of shear walls.**

For the numerical part, sophisticated tools are used to simulate performance during a large collection of earthquakes, like those recorded in Canada.

* This infrastructure was aquired through a Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Leaders Opportunity Fund project that was awarded to Concordia in 2007.

** A shear wall is a structural system composed of braced panels to counter the effects of lateral load, from wind or seismic activity, acting on a structure.

What is the hoped-for result of your project?

My study will contribute to the enhancement of seismic hazard safety in Canada. The outcome of my PhD thesis will significantly benefit the end user and stakeholders in the masonry design and construction industry.

Conducting a good experimental and numerical study will create practical knowledge enhancing the current construction methods of reinforced masonry walls. Indirect benefits lie in generating new experimental and analytical knowledge that paves the way for other researchers to continue advancements in this field.

What impact could you see it having on people's lives?

The Canadian land mass has seismically active zones in its Western and Eastern regions. Buildings located in these areas are prone to severe damage or collapse if they are not designed to perform well during earthquake activity.

The performance of unreinforced masonry during large earthquake events has negatively affected public opinion about the industry and the ability of masonry to survive such events. This research is an important step toward the construction of mid-rise reinforced masonry buildings that have the ability to provide a large margin of safety in high seismic zones.

What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?

Due to the limited height of the testing facility, the dimensions of the walls have to be half-scaled concrete blocks. However, these half-scale units have the same mechanical properties of the full-scale material.

The other challenge is the capacity of the testing frame. We needed to strengthen the existing frame in the Structures Lab to withstand the high resistance of the new half-scale walls.

What are some of the key areas where your work could be applied?

The outcome of this research will be instrumental for the upcoming renewal of the Canadian Standards Association S304 “Design of Masonry Structures” standard. This document provides the minimum design requirements for designing masonry buildings.

What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to study this subject and get involved in the field?

During my MEng, I approached Khaled Galal to supervise my master’s project. He introduced me to reinforced masonry structure research and gave me a tour of the Structures Lab. He also connected me with one of his PhD students so that I could work on the numerical modelling of reinforced masonry structures.

From that project I was able to learn more about the subject and publish a conference paper. Galal then invited me to his regular open meetings with his PhD students discussing their research topics. This motivated me to pursue my doctoral work in the field.

What advice would you give STEM students interested in getting involved in this line of research?

This type of research requires patience, hard work and the ability to solve problems. My advice to students is to keep focusing on their goals. They will face problems, but they should always look at things from the point of view of finding solutions.

What do you like best about being at Concordia?

Concordia facilitates everything a student needs to focus on their research. I am not only talking about the professors, technicians, labs and libraries, but also things like free self-development courses, an affordable gym, study spots for graduate students and free software.

I also like how graduate courses focus on practical knowledge by giving considerable emphasis to group and individual projects along with the basic theoretical knowledge.

Are there any partners, agencies or other funding/support attached to your research?

Some of the infrastructure in the Structures Lab was funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

This research project is supported by an NSERC Collaborative Research and Development Grant, l'Association des entrepreneurs en maçonnerie du Québec, the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association and the Canada Masonry Design Centre.

Find out more about Concordia’s civil engineering labs.



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