Buildings, like all structures, are designed to support certain loads without deforming excessively. The loads are the weights of people and objects, the weight of rain and snow and the pressure of wind--called live loads--and the dead load of the building itself. With buildings of a few floors, strength generally accompanies sufficent rigidity, and the design is mainly that of a roof that will keep the weather out while spanning large open spaces. With tall buildings of many floors, the roof is a minor matter, and the support of the weight of the building itself is the main consideration. Like long bridges, tall buildings are subject to catastrophic collapse. The causes of building collapse can be classified under general headings to facilitate analysis. These headings are: Bad Design
Unexpected Failure Modes
Combination of Causes
Bad design does not mean only errors of computation, but a failure to take into account the loads the structure will be called upon to carry, erroneous theories, reliance on inaccurate data, ignorance of the effects of repeated or impulsive stresses, and improper choice of materials or misunderstanding of their properties. The engineer is responsible for these failures, which are created at the drawing board.
Faulty construction has been the most important cause of structural failure. The engineer is also at fault here, if inspection has been lax. This includes the use of salty sand to make concrete, the substitution of inferior steel for that specified, bad riveting or even improper tightening torque of nuts, excessive use of the drift pin to make holes line up, bad welds, and other practices well known to the construction worker.
Even an excellently designed and constructed structure will not stand on a bad foundation. Although the structure will carry its loads, the earth beneath it may not. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a famous example of bad foundations, but there are many others. The old armory in St. Paul, Minnesota, sank 20 feet or more into soft clay, but did not collapse. The displacements due to bad foundations may alter the stress distribution significantly. This was such a problem with railway bridges in America that statically-determinate trusses were greatly preferred, since they were not subject to this danger.
Extraordinary loads are often natural, such as repeated heavy snowfalls, or the shaking of an earthquake, or the winds of a hurricane. A building that is intended to stand for some years should be able to meet these challenges. A flimsy flexible structure may avoid destruction in an earthquake, while a solid masonry building would be destroyed. Earthquakes may cause foundation problems when moist filled land liquefies.
Unexpected failure modes are the most complex of the reasons for collapse, and we have recently had a good example. Any new type of structure is subject to unexpected failure, until its properties are well understood. Suspension bridges seemed the answer to bridging large gaps. Everything was supported by a strong cable in tension, a reliable and understood member. However, sad experience showed that the bridge deck was capable of galloping and twisting without restraint from the supporting cables. Ellet's bridge at Wheeling collapsed in the 1840's, and the Tacoma Narrows bridge in the 1940's, from this cause. The conservative, strong statically-determinate trusses were designed with pin-connected eyebars to be as strong and safe as possible. Sad experience brought the realization of stress concentration at the holes pierced in the eyebars. From earliest times, it has been recognized that tension members have no surprises. They fail by pulling apart when the tension in them becomes too high. If you know the tension, then proportioning a member is easy. A compression member, a column, is different. If it is short and squat, it bears its load until it crushes. But if you try to support a load...
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