future view

A building that can withstand any disaster

15 March 2016 • 6 min reading time

Terrorist attacks, forces of nature, gas explosions – buildings are put to the test by all sorts of disasters. Research is therefore going on into disaster-proof buildings. An interview with Ans van Doormaal on buildings that can withstand disasters.

Why do we need disaster-proof buildings?

‘Forces of nature and attack threats are on the rise all over the world. Buildings that collapse, completely or partially, cause a lot of victims. For the first time we’ve shown, in collaboration with a consortium of international companies and centres of expertise, how to design a safe building that is resilient to such things as earthquakes, floods and attacks. Our design also provides additional protection for the people in the building and those right outside it – another first. Designs normally only take the safety of people in the building into consideration.’

‘For the first time we’ve shown how to design a safe building that is resilient to such things as earthquakes, floods and attacks’

Why is safe design still not common practice?

‘It may seem a simple matter to design a safe building, but a whole thought process has to be gone through first. Designers don’t have a complete overview of the safety and security aspects, so they don’t even go there, with the result that all sorts of implicit choices are made. If safety and resilience choices are made explicit at the design stage, the design team can discuss what protective measures need to be taken. What is the likely threat? How great is it? How much risk are we willing to accept? What budget do we have at our disposal? Which measures need to be included at the design stage and which can be taken later if the level of threat increases?’

How did you set about that?

‘As part of the EU’s ELASSTIC project we developed methods for showing the effects of a threat, so that the design team knows precisely what impact an attack or a natural disaster will have on the building and can consider this and make transparent decisions. Based on this knowledge the user can also set up an appropriate crisis management organization and work together with the police and emergency services. This is a responsible approach to keeping people safe and enables the choices made to be justified.’

What have you and your expert team shown?

‘The consortium developed an actual design for a safe building. We have the drawings, and building work could in theory start tomorrow. We’ve shown that it’s possible, using the analytical tool that we’ve developed, for a multidisciplinary design team to make the right decisions about resilience.’

 ‘We have the drawings, and building work could in theory start tomorrow’

Why is that important?

‘Because it enables you to back up decisions and choices with facts. Otherwise what are you going to base them on? On what basis do you opt for functionality, architectonics, resilience against explosions, earthquakes or floods? Who should you be guided by, the police? Or the fire service, the local authority – or the owner? Having discussed the matter at length and following various analyses of potential scenarios and individual interviews, we developed the criteria used in the multi-criteria analysis. Based on these criteria and clear definitions the tool analyses various scenarios and helps to make the right decisions.’

Do your analysis and design take the impact of a natural disaster or terrorist attack into consideration?

‘Yes. As part of the analysis we’ve linked mathematical models to the Building Information Model (BIM) that is used as standard practice in the construction industry. This is a computer model containing all the technical specifications and visualizations of a building, enabling the various disciplines to work together on its construction in an integrated manner. By linking our mathematical model for explosions to the BIM, for instance, you can calculate what impact an attack would have on the building.’

Are there mathematical models for earthquakes and floods as well?

‘Yes, but we haven’t linked them in yet. The results can be entered manually in the BIM, however. We’ve also developed a tool for computing the various scenarios and visualizing the resulting damage to the building. These tools give the design team simple ways of making decisions and checking where additional protective measures are needed in the design. It goes without saying that we used them in our own safe design.’

We’ve developed a tool for computing the various scenarios and visualizing the resulting damage to the building’ 

Where will your safe building be built?

‘The multipurpose building that we’ve designed contains a shopping mall, a museum, apartments and offices and a large theatre. It is near The Hague Central Station and the drawings are up and ready. It will not be built, however. We opted for this particular site in consultation with the local authority, as we wanted to produce a realistic design for a real-life situation. It’s not our aim to actually build the building on that site. We just wanted to show that it’s possible to include safety in the design and development process for a building or urban environment right from the start, and we’ve done that. Our practical approach means that resilience is not just an idea on paper but a reality.’

Can existing buildings be made safe?

‘Our analytical system and tools provide some help in assessing the safety of an existing building, so that a reasonable decision can be made on whether additional protective measures are needed. But taking measures after the event is often difficult and costly, which is why I’m advocating safety and security by design. The safety of people inside and outside the building benefits most from a thought and design process that takes additional measures to protect against natural disasters or terrorist attacks into consideration right from the start.’

Can you give me an example?

‘Say there is a threat of flooding: the critical, vulnerable systems will then be housed not in the basement but somewhere else in the building. The area around the building can be designed in such a way that barriers hold back the water. To protect against attacks the area outside can be designed so that pedestrians cannot get close to the building, thus protecting them against falling glass blown out by an explosion. We visibly built in various environmental measures in our own design as a showcase.’

What can we expect in future?

‘The European Union is the driving force behind our project and has provided funding. Because of the increasing level of threat I imagine that they will be aiming at safe designs for new buildings. I also expect smart sensors to play a greater role. They can provide information on the state of a building after it has been hit by an incident, for example. Or they can show where it is unsafe, so that people can leave the building by dynamic routes. They can even estimate the number of victims so that the hospital can be alerted in advance. Our project partner Siemens is actively developing dynamic evacuation models and other applications.’

‘Smart sensors can provide information on the state of a building after it has been hit by an incident’

Where can anyone interested find more information?

‘In collaboration with our Dutch consortium partner Arcadis we are holding a symposium on Urban & Building Resilience – Safety & Security by design on 7 April 2016 in The Hague. Various speakers, representing the fire service, engineering agencies, contractors, industry, research organizations and end-users, will talk about the integrated approach that we’ve developed to making infrastructure more resilient. They will also talk about the EU’s ELASSTIC project. More information on the symposium can be found at www.elasstic.eu. If you’re interested you can also contact my colleague, Jolanda van Deursen, who has been closely involved in the project.’

Symposium Urban & Building Resilience
Safety & Security by design
7 April 2016, The Hague
From 12:30 pm to 6:00 pm
For more information you can call or e-mail Jolanda van Deursen, Senior Business Developer at TNO, on 06-30727331 or [email protected]

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