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MIT Monitors Building Health

Friday, October 21, 2016

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A group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have come up with a way to continuously monitor buildings for signs of instability, structural damage or mechanical stress.

They have developed a computational model that makes sense of ambient vibrations, picking out key features in the noise that give indications of a building’s stability, according to an announcement on the research.

Building Health monitoring
Photo by Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

(Left to right): M. Nafi Toksöz, professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; Oral Buyukozturk, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE); and Hao Sun, a postdoc in CEE. The Green Building, behind them, has 36 accelerometers that record vibrations and movements on selected floors, from the building’s foundation to its roof.

“The broader implication is, after an event like an earthquake, we would see immediately the changes of these features, and if and where there is damage in the system,” says Oral Buyukozturk, a professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “This provides continuous monitoring and a database that would be like a health book for the building, as a function of time, much like a person’s changing blood pressure with age.”

The team recently published its research in the journal Mechanical Systems and Signal Processing.

The Patient on Campus

For the study, the team focused on the tallest building in Cambridge, MA—MIT’s Green Building. The 21-story concrete-reinforced research building was designed in the 1960s by architect and MIT alum I.M. Pei.

In 2010, the team worked with the U.S. Geological Survey to outfit the Green Building with 36 accelerometers that record vibrations and movements on selected floors, from its foundation to the rooftop.

“These sensors represent an embedded nervous system,” said Buyukozturk. “The challenge is to extract vital signs from the sensors’ data and link them to health characteristics of a building, which has been a challenge in the engineering community.”

The Testing

The team constructed a computer simulation, or finite element model, of the Green Building. Then they plugged various parameters into the model, including the strength and density of concrete walls, beams, slabs and stairs on each floor.

The model is designed to predict how the building would respond to a truck-like vibration.

The model, however, uses a lot of assumptions about the building’s material, its geometry and the thickness of its elements, Buyukozturk admits.

To improve the model's predictability, the group was able to mine data from the Green Building’s accelerometers, looking for key features that correspond to a building’s stiffness or other indicators of health. In addition, they developed a new method with the seismic interferometry concept that describes how a vibration’s pattern changes as it travels from the ground level to the roof.

Photo by Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

Study author Hao Sun holds an example of a sensor. He thinks one day buildings may be outfitted with these sensors and central processing algorithms to make them intelligent, feeling their own health and possibly being resilient to extreme events.

“We look at the foundation level and see what motions a truck, for instance, caused there, and then how that vibration travels upward and horizontally, in speed and direction,” Buyukozturk explained.

The team plugged the data equation into their model and took measurements over a two-week period in 2015.

The Diagnosis

Buyukozturk said so far they have determined that the Green Building is safe but is subject to “quite a bit of vibration, particularly in the upper floors.”

“We are continuously making our computational system more intelligent over time, with more data,” Buyukozturk said. “We’re confident if there is damage in the building, it will show up in our system.

“The building, which is built on soft soil, is long in one direction and narrow in the other with stiff concrete walls on each end. Therefore, it manifests torsional movements and rocking, especially on windy days,” he noted.

Next Steps

There is more research to do, according to the team. They plan to verify their computation model with experiments in the lab, simulating hammer strikes and other seismic stimuli. They are also building a large steel structure in Woburn, MA, about the size of a cell phone tower, to carry out similar experiments that will ultimately help refine their model.

“I would envision that, in the future, such a monitoring system will be instrumented on all our buildings, city-wide,” said lead author Hao Sun, a Civil and Environmental Engineering postdoc. “Outfitted with sensors and central processing algorithms, those buildings will become intelligent, and will feel their own health in real time and possibly be resilient to extreme events.”

The study co-authors were Aurélien Mordret, a postdoc in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS); Germán Prieto, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Assistant Professor in EAPS; and M. Nafi Toksöz, an EAPS professor.

The research was funded, in part, by Royal Dutch Shell through the MIT Energy Initiative, and by the Kuwait-MIT Signature Project through the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences and the Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment.


Tagged categories: Building operations; Building science; Colleges and Universities; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Research

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