Remembering Nepal One Year Later: Toronto Start-up Reaches New Heights in Protecting Buildings from Natural Disasters

CBJ As the one-year anniversary of the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquake approaches, a Toronto-based start-up is taking action to ensure future high-rise buildings are protected from earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Kinetica, which grew out of the University of Toronto Civil Engineering Department, has developed a ground-breaking, earthquake and wind-resistant technology to safeguard tall buildings against strong vibrations and potential damage. The first Canadian building to install the company’s innovation is Toronto’s YC Condos, a development by Canderel under construction at the intersection of Yonge and College Streets.

Working behind the scenes on Kinetica’s innovative solution is Deepak Pant, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Toronto with ties to Nepal.

“Being born and raised in Nepal, I was constantly reminded by my elders how vulnerable our country was to natural disasters,” said Pant, whose friends and family members were directly affected by the Nepal quake on April 25 last year. “Communities around the world are at an increased risk of natural catastrophes today and a disaster-resilient infrastructure is important for the health and well-being of all people, including Canadians.”

Pant’s cutting-edge research, funded by Mitacs — a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to building research-based partnerships to create a more innovative Canada — is helping to increase the resiliency of tall buildings by applying state-of-the-art computer modelling techniques to better understand the risks associated with natural hazards on these buildings and to further quantify the substantial benefits of Kinetica’s technology on them.

Co-founded in 2011 by structural engineer Michael Montgomery and University of Toronto professor Constantin Christopoulos, Kinetica’s solution — called the viscoelastic coupling damper or VCD — safeguards buildings by absorbing and dissipating the energy caused by strong winds and earthquakes.

“It’s important that tall buildings not only ride out an earthquake or hurricane, but remain functional afterwards,” said Montgomery, a former Mitacs researcher who now serves as Kinetica’s CEO. “Deepak’s wealth of knowledge, which includes experiencing numerous earthquakes, is an essential enabler to advance the understanding of resilience of buildings using the high-performance coupling damper system as we focus on growing our business.”

Experts say it will take many years to rebuild in Nepal where widespread damage caused by the earthquake is pegged at more than $5 billion, representing one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Meanwhile, a recent study commissioned by the Insurance Bureau of Canada reveals a one in 10 chance that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake will strike off the coast of British Columbia within the next 50 years, causing an estimated $74 billion in direct and indirect economic loss in the province. Even recently constructed buildings, built to the national building code of Canada, are not immune to potential loss, Montgomery said.

It is common for developers to rely on very large steel blocks or tanks of water placed strategically at the top of concrete structures that, when “tuned” properly, counteract movement caused by frequent wind storms, however this solution does not necessarily protect against earthquakes, according to Montgomery.

Kinetica’s “VCD” — which consists of layers of viscoelastic (rubber-like) material bonded between steel plates — is used to join large concrete walls throughout a building, replacing traditional concrete and steel coupling beams that are common in all tall building construction. Unlike coupling beams, which are prone to structural damage in an earthquake, the VCDs act like shock absorbers in a car to mitigate vibrations during an earthquake without incurring damage. The result is higher-performing buildings that are able to maintain their structural integrity before, during and after the earthquake.

Another advantage is that the VCD technology does not need to take up valuable, leasable or sellable space at the top of a building, meaning developers gain an economic advantage, Montgomery said. It also requires less maintenance and fine-tuning than traditional “tuned” approaches.

“This technology is definitely changing the way we are designing tall buildings, not only in Canada, but worldwide,” said Dr. Tibor Kokai, lead structural engineer of YC Condos. “The fact that it can work for both wind and earthquakes is a tremendous advantage and with a system like this, we are moving towards the ultimate goal of completely eliminating structural damage even after major earthquakes.”

After just five years in operation, Kinetica already has a global presence, signing a deal with Shanghai Lead Dynamics Engineering to distribute its products in China, and is in talks with several other local and national developers who are also considering the technology for their projects. “The response from industry is tremendous,” Montgomery said. “Our technology resonates with architects, developers and engineers who want to ensure buildings and cities are better prepared for the next extreme event, whatever that might be.”


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