The advances of earthquake engineering ‘Made in Chile’

SIRVE, a company created by two academics from the Universidad Católica, has successfully demonstrated the quality of its earthquake-resistant technology following the so-called ‘27/F’ earthquake that struck Chile in 2010. The firm is now consolidating its international presence through which it has, to date, participated in numerous research studies with distinct universities and US government bodies, opened an office in Peru and established operations in New Zealand.

By María Ignacia Medina 

After having checked that his family was safe, the first thing that the architect and businessman, Abraham Senerman, did after the large earthquake that struck Chile in the early hours of 27 February 2010 was to jump in his car. He then drove from his house to the Torre Titanium skyscraper in the east of Santiago, which at the time was the tallest building in Chile and just days away from its official opening. Even though it was almost dawn (the earthquake struck at 3:34 am local time), Senerman and his team of professionals entered the building to inspect the extent of the damage to its subterranean floors. Apart from minor superficial issues, the skyscraper was structurally sound. “We had passed the biggest test in the world for a building of this height made of reinforced concrete”, he later commented, praising not only the quality of the construction but also the seismic system of energy dissipation incorporated into its design.

SIRVE was responsible for the earthquake protection system deployed in the Titanium Tower and, as a result of 27/F, the company had proven itself more than capable of overcoming a large magnitude event. In addition to this skyscraper, the firm has also designed an additional 12 earthquake engineering projects that are “highly emblematic”, notes the partner and founder of the firm, Juan Carlos de la Llera, “including the Military Hospital and the Coronel Pier, (and) in which we have used technology that is made in Chile and implemented using local manpower” he adds.

The 27/F earthquake was a major event due to the subsequent emergency it produced in Chile. It also marked a turning point for the initiative that de la Llera had initially launched with Carl Lüders in 1996, having obtained support from the Dirección de Investigaciones Científicas y Tecnológicas (Directorate of Scientific and Technological Research) of the Universidad Católica. Following 27 February 2010, “we were able to demonstrate that, in Chile and Latin America in general, it is possible to experience a large magnitude earthquake and still see positive results. Nobody had ever tested energy dissipaters in a building like the Titanium Tower during a three-minute earthquake, and the favorable outcome had two main effects: we secured increased recognition for the Chilean civil engineering scene, and we ourselves won several prizes, including international ones”, says de la Llera. Indeed, de la Llera was subsequently bestowed with the prestigious Endeavor Award in 2011 in the US city of San Francisco.

Public vocation

SIRVE focuses on comprehensive engineering solutions in the areas of protection, structural design and review of earthquake projects, with a proven approach that is founded on active technological development and innovation. This vision originated in 1995 when de la Llera, who received his formative civil engineering training at the Universidad Católica, returned from the University of Berkeley in the US having obtained a doctorate in the modelling and structural dynamics of vibration reduction and seismic risk. At that time, he felt the need to pursue a line of earthquake engineering that differed from the one being practiced in the country. Accordingly, the engineer, who in addition to his duties at SIRVE is Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the Universidad Católica, recalls: “in Chile, the only thing that earthquake regulations stipulated (in the mid-1990s) in terms of buildings was that they were not allowed to collapse or cause fatalities. However, at that point in time, there was also a brand new international concept for protecting buildings against earthquakes via two specific types of technology: seismic base isolation, which essentially decouples a building’s superstructure from its substructure using large rubber rollers; and energy dissipaters, which are types of shock absorbers that dissipate vibrations”.

It was in the context of this new technology that de la Llera’s team was awarded a CLP$400 million grant from the Fondo de Fomento al Desarrollo Científico y Tecnológico (Scientific and Technological Development Support Fund), or Fondef, in 1996. This capital was invested in research work and to establish a new test laboratory, and after an initial period of two years, SIRVE was formally established. Between 2003 and 2010, the company “grew gradually, with one or two projects a year, and later transformed into what is has become today: an entity with a turnover of around CLP$4.5 billion”. He explains that the success achieved was originally “founded on the efforts of two academics and a team of extraordinary students who, after 15 years, are still here making things happen, and with whom we keep on reinventing the company: a company with innovation at the core of its DNA”.

Since 2009, SIRVE has been backed by the Fondo Copec-Universidad Católica (Copec-Universidad Católica Fund) which comprises the Chilean petroleum company and the university and which now owns a stake in the firm. Its seismic technology work began at the Universidad Católica’s Campus Clínico building at San Carlos de Apoquindo, Santiago and was followed by projects at the Antofagasta, Félix Bulnes and Dr Exequiel González Cortés hospitals, as well as the GNL Mejillones regasification plant and the Centro de Innovación UC Anacleto Angelini innovation center, also part of Universidad Católica.

At present, and in addition to the firm’s emblematic participation in a cultural heritage project to restore the Basílica del Salvador in Santiago, the largest current initiative being undertaken by the company is its work on the Los Libertadores border crossing facility. Both these projects align with SIRVE’s commitment to support the public sector. This approach is also reflected by its interest in promoting the protection of State hospitals against earthquakes through a number of projects that are currently being negotiated with the Ministerio de Salud (Ministry of Health).

More generally, de la Llera affirms that “we are not only interested in ensuring the essential things in terms of minimizing risks to people, but also in making sure that the buildings in question operate efficiently and with continuity”. And despite the company’s commitment to the public sector, he recognizes that private projects are playing an increasingly significant role in the SIRVE portfolio.

The keys to going international

One of the major objectives of SIRVE is to secure the internationalization of the company. In this regard, its experience gained in the United States has been fundamental. Particularly important in this sense was the firm’s participation in 2012 in a project in California that was directed by the University of San Diego and the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES). The project subjected a model five-story building, equipped as a hospital, to a strong seismic resistance test on a shaking table, which was the most advanced of its kind in the US at this time. The aim of this test was to study the behavior of the building’s structure and its interior facilities, and the crucial point is that the seismic isolation applied in the trial was designed by engineers from SIRVE. Following the successful outcome of these tests, the experience was followed by the team’s participation in a range of different proposals across the United States.

Another important step at the international level occurred in 2015 with the opening of an office in Peru. It was from this location that SIRVE has executed several projects related to anti-earthquake energy dissipation in buildings such as the Panorama, Orquídeas, Barlovento and Atlantik Ocean Towers.

To date, the company’s most ambitious project outside Chile concerns a control system to deal with vibrations produced by wind flow on the tallest building in Auckland, New Zealand: a country in which SIRVE is working with local entities as well as Chinese capital, according to de la Llera.

In order to take full advantage of the opportunities beyond Chile’s borders, the major challenges for SIRVE are to now strengthen its commercial dimension and secure new capital. “We are in the process of searching for capital to take the next big leap forward, and this must be accompanied with new investment. This company is perfectly capable of turning over US$50 million or US$100 million”, he remarks.

Original dice “Centro Médico de San Carlos de Apoquindo UC” pero encontré este en la página web de SIRVE: http://sirve.cl/archivos/proyectos/305

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