Posted November 25th, 2015 by Tyler Irving

Kinetica: engineering safer buildings in Toronto, China and worldwide

  • U of T alumnus Michael Montgomery

    Alumnus Michael Montgomery (pictured) and Professor Constantin Christopoulos are behind Kinetica, a company making buildings earthquake resistant. (Photo: Katherine Carney) Previous

This story is Part 2 of an eight-part series, Global Engineering Impact, running throughout fall 2015.

Kinetica is reaching new heights at home and abroad. The company, which designs devices that safely dissipate the energy absorbed by high-rise buildings during high winds and earthquakes, just announced that its technology would be incorporated into the YC Condos at the corner of Yonge and College in Toronto.

Co-founded by U of T Engineering alumnus Michael Montgomery (CivE PhD 1T1) and Professor Constantin Christopoulos (CivE), Kinetica also signed a deal earlier this month to distribute its products in China, as part of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s trade mission to that region.

Nearly ten years ago, Montgomery began his graduate studies in Christopoulos’ lab. One technology they studied was viscoelastic dampers. These are made of large sheets of a rubber-like material — known as a viscoelastic polymer — sandwiched between steel plates. When incorporated into tall buildings, viscoelastic dampers absorb vibrational energy and transform it into heat, reducing forces in adjacent components.

“Viscoelastic dampers were actually the first damping systems used in tall buildings like the World Trade Centre in New York City, which was built in 1969,” says Montgomery. “They used about 10,000 in each building.” Their main purpose was to reduce the swaying caused when such buildings endure high winds. Buildings higher than 50 stories can sway as much as several feet on either side, which can make penthouse-dwellers motion sick.”

a viscoelastic coupling damper being tested

This viscoelastic coupling damper (yellow) is being tested by applying forces to the two concrete slabs on either side of it. A similar test in action is shown in the video below. (Photo: Kinetica)

Recently, it has become increasingly economical and efficient to make tall buildings out of concrete rather than steel. Unfortunately, the design of these new concrete buildings makes it harder to incorporate distributed dampers into the structure.

In steel buildings, dampers could be used either in a brace (diagonal) or wall (vertical) configurations within the steel skeleton. By contrast, concrete buildings contain thick, long walls that stretch from the bottom all the way to the top; there is no available space within the skeleton to integrate the dampers.

Instead, builders of concrete structures usually rely on huge masses at the top, generally very large steel blocks or very large tanks of water, to provide damping. When the building shifts one way in the wind, these giant masses shift the other, providing a counterweight that reduces the motion. Such masses take up lots of space; they also have to be very carefully designed and instrumented to match the properties of the specific building they are used in and they don’t provide protection against earthquakes.

Montgomery and Christopoulos’ key insight was to realize that there was a place to put viscoelastic dampers into a concrete building after all: the coupling beams. These smaller, horizontal concrete beams are used on each floor to connect the two giant walls together and increase the rigidity of the building. Under high winds and earthquakes, these smaller coupling beams become heavily stressed, so replacing them with something that can absorb energy — like a viscoelastic damper — seemed like an ideal solution.

A diagram of Kinetica's viscoelastic dampers at work.

This diagram demonstrates how Kinetica’s strategy of replacing horizontal concrete coupling beams with viscoelastic dampers can make buildings more resilient to dynamic loading. (Image: Kinetica)

The researchers ran hundreds of tests to show that replacing concrete beams with viscoelastic dampers could absorb enough energy to deal with the loads associated with high winds. Moreover, during a severe and rare earthquake, the dampers can act as ‘structural fuses’, diffusing dangerously high forces and protecting the rest of the building. This is not the case with concrete coupling beams; in fact some modern buildings that have survived earthquakes — like the one that hit Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011 — have so much structural damage that they often need to be torn down even if they are not at risk of imminent collapse.

The new design also has the advantage of opening up the space on the building’s top floors that was previously used for the large steel masses or water tanks. “That space is prime real estate,” says Montgomery. “In a place like New York City, you’re talking $5,000 to $10,000 per square foot, which is very valuable.”

In 2011, Christopoulos and Montgomery founded Kinetica. “We’ve been incredibly well supported by the network of different organizations in and around U of T,” says Montgomery. The Innovation and Partnerships Office helped Kinetica secure international patents for its designs. U of T’s Impact Centre, part of the Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship provided access to mentors who helped the team hone their pitch to the big players in the construction industry. Financial support included the Heffernan Commercialization Fellowship from U of T Engineering, an Idea to Innovation grant from NSERC and a Martin Walmsley Award from the Ontario Centres of Excellence among numerous others.

Kinetica also worked closely with world-leading damper manufacturing partners, Nippon Steel and 3M, to ensure the design was feasible. It was these partnerships that led to the recent agreement with Shanghai Lead Dynamics Engineering. That company agreed to promote Kinetica’s technology to engineers, developers, property owners and architects in the Chinese market. The memorandum of understanding was signed earlier this month as part of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s trade mission to China.

Closer to home, Kinetica announced this week that their technology would be incorporated into the YC Condos, soon to be constructed at the corner of Yonge and College being built by the real estate developers Canderel.

“The [viscoelastic coupling dampers] in YC Condos allowed us to provide the added damping to the building that was desired for the structural design and allowed us to maximize our sellable square footage”, said Ben Rogowski, executive vice president of Canderel. “Canderel is a forward thinking developer and therefore we wanted to lead the industry in embracing this new development in high-rise building design”.

“This technology is definitely changing the way we are designing tall buildings, not only in Canada but worldwide, ” says Dr. Tibor Kokai, lead structural engineer of YC Condos, and one of Canada’s top high-rise designers. “The fact that it can work for both wind and earthquake loading is a tremendous advantage. For seismic areas, with a system like this, we are moving towards the ultimate goal, of completely eliminating structural damage even after major earthquakes”

“It feels great that the local tall building community is embracing this innovation in addition to the global tall building community.” says Montgomery “I look forward to following the construction of the building, especially because I walk by it nearly every day!”

Kinetica plans to keep up the momentum. “We believe that this technology we developed at U of T will change the way that tall structures are built throughout the world,” says Montgomery. “They offer much more resilient and higher-performance buildings. In the end, we want to impact construction practice globally and improve the performance of these important structures.”