About the anti-quake properties of the Bird’s Nest …

On May 12, Li Jiulin, chief engineer of the Department of Contracts for the National Stadium [the Bird’s Nest] was conducting a “quality” inspection of the facility when the Wenchuan earthquake occurred. Within hours, Xinhua was quoting Li on the safety of the structure. For example, the English-language People’s Daily concluded its story featuring Li by noting:

Li Jiulin contended that since the “Nest’s”designed seismic resistance scale was 8 on the Richter scale, an earthquake of a relatively small scale would not pose a threat. All the Olympic venues were evaluated for seismic safety prior to construction.

This reassurance was repeated for wider media distribution by the official voice of the Olympic media center (as reported by Bloomberg):

Olympic venues and buildings in Beijing weren’t threatened by China’s strongest earthquake in 58 years because they were constructed to withstand magnitude-8 shocks, Li Zhanjun, director of Beijing’s Olympic media center, said today.

“The venues are not at risk from earthquakes,” he told reporters in Beijing.

In one sense, this was nothing new: for the better part of five years, it’s been conventional wisdom (in China, at least) that the Beijing 2008 venues were being subjected to a stricter set of quality and safety guidelines than other Chinese construction projects. For example, I’ve had several conversations with people in the steel industry assuring me that the steel used in the Bird’s Nest is “different” (meaning, better) than what would be used (or made available) to other Chinese construction projects. Quite simply, more attention was being paid to the Olympic buildings.

Or was it?

A few hours ago, Xinhua dropped this bomb:

Beijing probes anti-quake capabilities of “Bird’s Nest,” CCTV leaning towers

The Xinhua story doesn’t come out and directly say so, but it’s quite clear that – earlier assurances aside – the CCTV Towers and the Bird’s Nest designs were not subjected to seismic testing. An extended (edited passage) … after the jump:

Many super-high buildings with innovative design and unique shape have been sprouting up in the city in recent years. But “many were designed by foreign designers who came from non-quake zones and lacked anti-quake design experience,” said a Beijing Municipal Construction Committee official on Wednesday.

“Some architecture plans are quite abnormal and beyond the existing design criteria,” he said …

… The National Stadium, nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest,” is famous nationwide for its giant twig-like structure of metal girders and bowl-shaped roof. Covering an area of 20.4 hectares, it can seat 91,000 spectators over three floors for the Olympics.

The stadium employs a sophisticated structural design created by the China Architecture Design and Research Group through a collaboration with the Swiss-based firm Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.

The two conjoined CCTV towers, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, became known worldwide for their unique shape even while under construction …

Beijing will strictly carry out the anti-quake probe on all the super-high buildings from now, the Beijing Municipal Construction Committee said …

… All buildings must have their quake prevention plan approved by the government before being erected, it said.

Now, it may very well turn out that both the Bird’s Nest and the CCTV complex are – as promised – capable of withstanding massive earthquakes. But what’s interesting here – really, really interesting – is that somebody in Beijing woke up one morning and realized that nobody knows if they are capable of withstanding massive earthquakes. Which is to say, despite promises publicly made, nobody ever checked.

Wow.

Two final notes.

First, I can’t write this without noting that the story leads by anonymously blaming the seismic deficiencies on “foreign designers who came from non-quake zones and lacked anti-quake design experience.” Perhaps the anonymous source has never seen San Francisco’s de Young Museum, designed by Bird’s Nest architects Herzog & de Meuron to San Francisco’s strict seismic design standards, and completed in 2005. In either case, it’s up to city building officials to sign off on seismic safety, and not the architects. Which is, perhaps, one reason that an investigation is now warranted … and why Beijing municipal officials are taking the path of least resistance and blaming it all on the foreigners (get ready for more of that tactic as August draws close).

Second. Someone, somewhere in Beijing, had the guts to call for this study. And someone else had the guts to inform the press of it. Neither act had to be easy, especially in the current Olympics-above-all-else atmosphere, and both deserve serious credit. Hats off to the whistleblowers.

[In slightly different form, the story can be found on the official BOCOG website, here. Shanghai Daily’s version – which repeats an un-sourced claim that the Bird’s Nest was designed to withstand a 10.0 – can be found here.]

7 thoughts on “About the anti-quake properties of the Bird’s Nest …

  1. Seismic design is a structural engineering problem, not an architectural one. Did any Chinese structural engineer approved the design ?

  2. I was saw that too. Would not surprise me if the architects were totally insulated from local government officials during the design and construction process. That is how most of the Olympic contracting situations have functioned (BOCOG doesn’t want local bureaucrats screwing up their Olympic efficiency). Probably the architects had their own structural engineers look at the buildings but didn’t have a review according to Beijing’s never enforced seismic standards. If the Xinhua story is accurate then this is a total debacle and somebody’s head needs to be delivered to the IOC. I love the fact that they are hinting that they can somehow upgrade the CCTV building for earthquakes. Are you kidding me? We’re not talkinga bout tinkertoys here folks. This is one of the world’s most complext engineered buildings.

  3. By the way, the architects are not responsible for strength – that is the job of the structural engineers.

    I can assure you that not only were the designs developed and tested extensively by international experts, but that the designs were reviewed by an expert review panel made up of Chinese professors and that the designs were then taken on by local firms who take full responsibility for the designs, and who did extensive testing. I don’t know who is saying such irresponsible things, but a full and fair review will reveal that everything is fine (at the very least from the perspective of the design). It sounds like a political statement to me…

  4. Incidentally – the buildings I am referring to are the CCTV Tower, the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Aquatic Center. The standards that they were designed to go above code and are based on the largest earthquake that can reasonably be assumed to occur (Maximum Considered Earthquake in US parlance).

    Having said that, an across-the-board check on structures in Beijing will not do any harm. In fact it is likely that the more ordinary-looking structures are more at risk since they may not have gone through the “Expert Panel Review” required of tall and unusual buildings.

    One final note – the process followed for CCTV and the Bird’s Nest is more rigorous than that currently required in the US. The US codes are currently potentially deficient for tall buildings. I would be more worried about being in a tall building in Seattle or California if they had simply been designed “to code” (although most these days are now designed above code for this very reason).

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