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Coastal communities, like Manzanita, Ore., are vulnerable to a tsunami if and when “The Big One” hits. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Engineers at the University of Washington are developing a first-of-its-kind building that can withstand powerful waves from tsunamis. The tsunami-resistant buildings will have “breakaway” walls on lower floors that actually strengthen the structure when removed by strong waves. The buildings are designed to remain intact in a tsunami, protecting people seeking shelter on higher floors.

The researchers behind the project are up against a ticking clock but when it will go off is anyone’s guess. The Pacific Northwest is overdue for a massive earthquake and coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to the tsunamis that often coincide with seismic activity.

Faculty at the UW’s Civil & Environmental Engineering school won a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the building concept. The research team includes Dawn Lehman, Michael Motley, Charles Roeder, and Pedro Arduino — a group with collective expertise in earthquake, tsunami, and geotechnical engineering.

“There isn’t higher ground in the Pacific Northwest like there is in Hawaii, so we must provide safety for communities during a tsunami,” Lehman said in a blog post announcing the project. “Vertical evacuation structures are expected to provide public safety in these regions, but the structural design and tsunami loadings are unstudied. This project will provide fundamental and first-of-its-kind data for the engineering of these important structures.”

Their design uses a frame of concrete-filled steel tubes that remain intact when tsunami waves destroy the walls. The researchers say the breakaway walls would reduce the overall force on the structure while the frame anchors higher floors. The team will test the designs using Oregon State University’s large-scale wave tank, which can simulate tsunami waves.

This sketch shows the concrete-filled steel tubes that would anchor the building when the walls break away. (UW Image)

Communities on the coasts of Washington and Oregon are scrambling to catch up in the wake of new revelations about the “Big One,” a nickname for the Cascadia Subduction Zone’s overdue earthquake. If the UW team’s designs are viable, they could provide a path forward for the most vulnerable coastal towns.

The researchers behind the breakaway design say their findings “will ultimately be implemented in building design codes for use by public agencies and engineers.”

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