In the wake of the devastating collapse of a Miami-area condominium tower, a Johns Hopkins University civil engineer can discuss the possibility that shifting soil beneath the building led to the massive structural failure.

Ben Schafer is the Willard and Lillian Hackerman Chair in the Johns Hopkins Department of Civil and Systems Engineering and is a leading expert on structural stability and optimization.

“We’re still missing a lot of details, but one possible cause that should be investigated is differential settlement, when the soil expands, contracts, or shifts away,” he said. “For example, if a column sinks into the ground at a different rate than another column, the demand on the beams can be incredibly large and can lead to failure of the floor at the point where the column and beam connect.”

“This scenario seems particularly likely given that the tower was built on soil that was brought in to fill the low-lying area. Fill soil is inherently less stable,” he said.

“Building collapses in the U.S. are exceedingly rare, and there will be lessons from this failure, whether they involve using computer models more carefully, avoiding last-minute changes in design, or striving for more robustness in building systems.”

Schafer’s research spans fracture mechanics, computational mechanics, thin-walled structures, steel structures, and beyond. He directs the Cold-Formed Steel Research Consortium and serves on the specification committees for the American Iron and Steel Institute and American Institute of Steel Construction.


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