Engineering buildings for better earthquake resistance

Associate Professor Nelson Lam is laying the foundations for building standards and codes of practice that mitigate the impact of earthquakes across Australia and Asia.

Through partnerships with institutes of engineers in Australia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore he advises engineers on best practice in line with building standards and codes in low-to-moderate earthquake risk zones. 

The structural dynamics expert is also collaborating with the Institution of Engineers Malaysia to develop the country’s first code for new buildings to protect against earthquakes.

Malaysia, like Australia, does not straddle tectonic plate boundaries, where the biggest and most regular earthquakes occur. Nevertheless, these areas are not without risk of local earthquakes capable of causing significant damage if buildings are not engineered correctly.

The 1989 magnitude-5.6 earthquake in Newcastle, New South Wales, killed 13 people and damaged 50,000 buildings. It was a “wake-up call” for the need for appropriate engineering and research in this region, he says.

Associate Professor Lam’s challenge is to inform policy and practice that will meet risk of earthquake for an acceptable cost, and he is working with economists and others within a cooperative research centre (CRC) framework to achieve it.

Through his work at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and Low Carbon Living CRC, he is investigating how older buildings would handle an earthquake and whether current building codes are adequate.

In evaluating the minimum level of engineering required to protect against earthquake impact he also undertakes fundamental scientific research. This involves analysing statistical data from around the world to calculate earthquake risk, as well as studying how different soil sediments or ‘near-surface’ geology behaves in earthquake events.

We don’t experience frequent earthquakes but we can’t ignore them, he says. We have to be able to cope with a disaster.

More information

Associate Professor Nelson Lam

Telephone: +61 3 8344 7554