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Project may help fortify homes against quakes


Professor Ben Fell's profile in Sacramento State's Faculty Experts Guide

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Since Professor Ben Fell came to Sacramento State four years ago, the structural engineering specialist has helped secure two major federal grants. The more recent is from the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, a subsidiary of the National Science Foundation, worth $1.2 million. The multiyear award, in conjunction with Stanford University, is meant to improve the performance of residential structures during earthquake motion.

Quake Study

Max Hardy, Ben Fell and Amy Hopkins.

Fell compares the “groundbreaking project” to the engineering gains made in automobile assembly from chassis-mounted design to more durable unibody construction. The project, he says, “has the potential to design residential structures with a ‘unibody’ methodology, taking advantage of gypsum-sheathed walls previously considered nonstructural and consequently disregarded.”

Fell believes building codes that incorporate such requirements or options not only could make homes more resistant to quake damage but, in the long run, would more than compensate for increased construction costs. He contends that it could lower insurance premiums, reduce home repair costs and lessen the cost of relocating families during repair.

The challenge is gathering the data and conducting the tests to prove the project’s supposition, an endeavor that graduate student Amy Hopkins and senior Max Hardy have been working on for the past eight months.

Fell chose Hopkins to lead the project. She designed the wall testing frame and loading rig that can replicate quake pressure on structures. “Our tech shop manufactured the parts,” she says, “and Max and I bolted them together.”

Hardy has a construction background and is grateful that Fell chose him for this project. “The professor challenges us each step of the way to get it done right and is always there to help us learn,” he says.

Experimental Phase 1, a series of wall panel tests, is taking place in Sac State’s Structural Engineering Testing Facility adjacent to Riverside Hall. Phase 2 will shift to UC Berkeley in February for several room tests. The final phase, shake-table tests, will be conducted at UC San Diego beginning in April 2014.

Those quake-motion tests will measure the unibody design of a two-story home with four to six rooms. Hopkins and Hardy will be there to witness the fruits of their considerable labors. Prior to that, they will gather data to share with their Stanford counterparts.

Fell is confident in the project’s objective based on preliminary experimental and analytical work at Stanford, where he completed his master’s degree. He believes the findings “could change the design of residential structures in seismic regions for years to come.”

The project’s progress thus far has been aided by in-kind contributions such as the Sacramento carpentry union that framed 10 of the test-wall specimens. Fell appreciates any help contractors or businesses can offer that will enable additional testing. He’s no less appreciative of his resourceful students who, in addition to gaining valuable experience, are being paid and receiving tuition assistance.

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– Alan Miller