NJIT Team Wins Recognition for its Twisted Design

NJIT's team of civil engineering students with their Structural Innovation Award

Everyone told them not to do it.

But they -- a team of college students -- did it anyway.

They designed a model of a skyscraper that twisted.

It’s an axiom of civil engineering that buildings should never be made to twist. Anyone who thought differently would be deemed “twisted.”

Nonetheless, the team of seven civil engineering students won a national engineering award for its twisted design of a skyscraper.

The NJIT team was granted the Structural Innovation Award during the Seismic Design Competition. The contest, held in Los Angeles, was sponsored by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. The students ranked ninth overall in the competition, beating some of the nation’s biggest engineering schools.

“Winning the award showed our team that thinking outside of the box and trying a different approach can be successful,” said Steven Flormann, a senior at NJIT. “All our professors told us that buildings should not twist, but we learned that pushing the limits of engineering is one of the best means of gaining knowledge and experience.”

For the contest, teams had to design balsa-wood models of a high-rise building. The models had to withstand simulated earthquake conditions. The judges used shake tables and accelerators to subject the models to mock seismic conditions.

The team designed a model of a building that twisted, or pivoted at one corner. That pivot, they theorized, would reduce the energy generated by an earthquake. Instead of swaying back and forth at the top, which is how buildings respond to earthquakes, their model would rotate around one stiff corner. Such rotation would deflect the seismic force that causes buildings to sway, and the acceleration would be diverted to the three other sides of the building.

Under initial testing, their theory worked: The twisting did dissipate the effects of a quake; none of their model’s beams and columns broke. The pivoting corner worked, too, and the roof withstood the simulated seismic shocks.

“Our basic idea of dissipating energy in the structure through a twisting or torsional motion is generally frowned upon, and most people at the competition thought we were slightly insane for trying it,” said Britain Materek, a senior at NJIT. “But when our structure performed like we said it would, and did in fact work, we received quite a few apologies.”

Though the model worked, their unorthodox theory could never be used by civil engineers, the students conceded. Their model was tested under known seismic conditions. But if a powerful earthquake struck, the acceleration on a twisting building would jolt anyone inside. And a sustained earthquake would cause the building to collapse.

“Our model was only a hypothetical test using a model of an uninhabited building,” Flormann said. “The judges recognized us because they didn’t think our model would work on any level. We proved them wrong, and for this they rewarded us.”

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)