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When seismic gets personal


When seismic safety gets personal


Growing knowledge and developing technology in seismic strengthening has taken a very personal turn in recent years for renowned concrete engineer Dr Stefano Pampinin.


In 2009, Stefano and his engineer wife returned to their native Italy to assist with local civil defence authorities after the devastating L'Aquila earthquake struck Abruzzo, in central Italy. And now, they find themselves in quake damaged Christchurch, where Stefano is part of an expert panel advising the royal commission of inquiry into the city’s earthquakes.


“Seeing these situations is confirmation that we are pushing for something very real, and highly practical with our seismic engineering work. It’s academic work that has crucial applications in real life.”


Seeing firsthand the importance of buildings that are seismically strong – and the tragedy of those that aren’t, Stefano is excited to play a key part of the research into the EXPAN technology - a role that began with one simple question – why don’t we try it in timber?


The renowned concrete engineer and fellow University of Canterbury colleagues Dr Alessandro Palermo and Professor of Timber Design Andy Buchanan put their expertise together, and the concept behind the EXPAN structural timber solutions was born.

Stefano had long used a timber model to teach students about PRESSS – precast seismic structural system, a ground-breaking damage avoidance seismic design solution developed by New Zealand Professor Nigel Priestley and a team at the University of California in the 1990s. Using this technique, buildings are able to withstand powerful earthquakes through a controlled rocking mechanism.


After presenting his timber model to students time and time again, Stefano found himself asking: why don’t we try this in timber? So the three University of Canterbury compatriates took what they knew of pre-stressed concrete technology and applied PRESSS concepts to wood.


“Embedding post-tension tendons in timber worked so nicely that we patented the system and it’s just grown from there. It’s exciting that timber can now compete with concrete and offer a new damage avoidance building design solution,” Stefano says.

Being part of STIC’s timber research is somewhat of an interesting shift for Stefano, whose academic path has been forged mainly in concrete. After completing his Laurea (cum laude) in Civil Engineering at Italy’s University of Pavia, he headed to the University of California to complete a Masters in Structural Engineering, where he had the opportunity to work alongside Professor Nigel Priestley, a world-renowned expert in seismic design. In working with Nigel, Stefano’s passion for prefabricated concrete engineering and PRESSS was ignited.


It’s often been said that any good engineering concepts come from standing on the shoulders of great engineers that have come before, and this was the case when the trio at Canterbury University decided to put PRESSS technology together with innovations in laminated veneer lumber to begin the path that would lead to the EXPAN range of pre-stressed, prefabricated timber solutions.


Stefano foresees many changes in building design following the Canterbury earthquakes.


“The bar will be raised – people will demand safer buildings that withstand earthquakes with less damage than traditional technology could offer. From a research perspective, we will increase what we know of intensity in earthquake testing – because we’ve seen that major earthquakes with significant force, can, and do, happen here.”


He believes change will come from “top down, and bottom up.”


“From Government, higher levels of seismic strengthening will become mandatory in new buildings, and hopefully incentives will be offered to encourage people to make old buildings safer. There’ll also be a revolution from the people who don’t want unsafe buildings, or foot huge insurance bills because we don’t learn from what’s happened here”.


“We need to look long term with building design, and not dare to accept old technology and minimum standards.”






“We need to look long term with building design, and not dare to accept old technology and minimum standards.”





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