New building concepts that take into account catastrophic events such as earthquakes have the potential to save thousands of lives. EU-funded researchers have pioneered new methods and materials for constructing earthquake-fire resistant buildings that are lightweight, energy efficient and cost-effective. The project's results are currently being commercialised.
More than 1 500 earthquakes of magnitude five or greater on the Richter scale are registered each year, causing devastation and death. “Contrary to a very widely held assumption, lightweight construction techniques could offer protection as good those offered by more solid components,” explains ELISSA project coordinator Maria Founti from the National Technical University of Athens.
“However, current anti-seismic designs with lightweight steel frames and dry wall systems are not optimised for extreme loads and abrupt changes in load distribution, and therefore cannot sustain severe deformations.”
Market for modular buildings
The EU-funded ELISSA project has pioneered new modular lightweight steel framed dry-wall buildings that can be constructed quickly yet still offer excellent energy, sound, fire and seismic performance. Since project completion in August 2016, two core industrial partners have successfully brought to market complete prefabricated lightweight solutions following the establishment of a joint venture.
“They are currently working on a joint project in Germany involving prefabricated facade walls that are based on ELISSA project results,” explains Founti. “This is the first step towards full commercialisation of ELISSA walls. We think that planners, engineers, architects, investors and construction companies all stand to benefit from innovations that enhance structural integrity, comfort and safety.”
Collaboration between other project partners has also continued, with the ultimate aim of developing complete lightweight solutions for both new and retrofitted buildings. “The project paid significant attention to the commercialisation potential of prefabricated modular buildings constructed on the basis of the ELISSA wall,” says Founti. “Our research suggests that countries with quite cold weather and high seismicity stand to benefit the most.”
Innovations in shock-proof construction
A key advantage of ELISSA walls is that the prefabricated modules can be easily constructed and adjusted for specific uses. They can be adapted for families, offices or other commercial uses, and offer low construction and energy costs. Important innovations include the use of nanotechnology-enabled materials in the form of vacuum insulation panels (VIP) and new fire-resistant paint formulations to protect the lightweight steel skeleton. A prototype active damping device helps to contain vibrations in the event of an earthquake.
“VIPs, which insulate approximately five times better than conventional insulation materials, are protected by enfolding them between drywall layers,” explains Founti. “This enables architects and planners to save up to 80 % of the space normally needed for insulation.”
The capacity of the ELISSA concept to achieve significant energy savings, survive earthquakes and comply with fire regulations was demonstrated in two mock-up buildings. “ELISSA walls were shown to be approximately 45 % thinner and at least 75 % lighter than typical brick walls used in Northern and Central Europe,” says Founti. “The mass of lightweight structures means that the seismic load is considerably lower, which improves overall seismic performance, too.”
Another lasting contribution of the ELISSA project could be in the development of a harmonised standard for light steel skeleton prefabricated elements and modules, which at present does not exist. “ELISSA results could be beneficial in developing design guidelines and supporting documents,” suggests Founti.