Japan’s Quake-Proof-Building Makers Prepare for a Bigger Shock

Quake-Proof-Building Makers Prepare for a Bigger Shock
Masaaki Saruta, group leader of the Vibration Control Engineering Group Center at Shimizu Corp., checks the joint section between the ground and the building for a test building that partially floats on water and stands on rubber bearings at the company's research facility in Tokyo. Photographer: Kimimasa Mayama/Bloomberg

As Japan’s record earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, Hidenori Tsukatani crawled under his desk and thought to himself: Now we will find out.

Tsukatani, a 60-year-old structural designer at Mitsubishi Jisho Sekkei Inc., has spent 35 years studying ways to make buildings that can withstand earthquakes so powerful they occur only once in every 500 to 1,000 years.

“People experienced such a big earthquake for the first time and felt scared, but the intensity of the quake in Tokyo was less than half of what we had simulated for our buildings,” said Tsukatani, a general manager at the unit of Mitsubishi Estate Co., Japan’s second-biggest developer. “I remember staying under my desk and watching the walls and the ceiling.”

After the March 11 disaster in Japan and two devastating earthquakes in New Zealand in four months, designers of shock-resistant structures like Mitsubishi Estate, Shimizu Corp. and New York-based Taylor Devices Inc. are increasing production or looking to expand in markets such as China as countries on fault lines improve building safety.

“Some governments in quake-prone countries will have to tighten their building codes,” said Yoji Otani, a construction analyst with Deutsche Bank AG. “Makers that specialize in quake-proof technologies are set to benefit.”

Taylor Devices, which makes fluid dampers based on a material designed to protect ballistic-missile silos from nuclear attack, plans to double production capacity by the end of 2012 to meet demand, President Douglas Taylor said in an e-mail. Orders rose 65 percent in Asia including China, Taiwan and South Korea, in the year ended May 31, he said.

Petronas Towers

“The market has tremendous potential,” said Taylor, whose system is used in buildings including the 88-story Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the 57-floor Torre Mayor building in Mexico City. “For many of the countries that really didn’t expect major earthquake, that idea is changing right now.”

Japan’s building code, one of the strictest in the world, has been tightened three times since its adoption in 1950, each time within three years of a major quake. The country has an average of two temblors with magnitude of 6.8 or larger a year.

An 8.6 magnitude quake is estimated to strike every 118.8 years on average near Tokyo, the last one being in 1854, according to Japan’s Metrological Agency. The chance of a major quake in the next decade beneath greater Tokyo, home to 13.1 million people, has doubled since the March tremor, said geophysicist Ross Stein at the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Tokyo is at a higher hazard than it was,” said Stein. “That earthquake could be very destructive.”

Tokyo Business District

Hirotaka Sugiyama, president of Mitsubishi Estate, said the March event prompted the company to reexamine the potential effect of a major shock on Tokyo’s Marunouchi business district, where the company owns about 30 buildings.

“We have different measures prepared for an earthquake right beneath Tokyo,” he said at a June 1 press briefing. “We are starting discussions about ways we can improve the safety of Marunouchi, which includes increasing our standard.”

Nittoc Construction Co., which specializes in civil engineering such as dams, roads and land development, has received a “considerable” number of inquiries from railway and power companies, including Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the stricken Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant that was damaged by the March quake and tsunami, said Yasunobu Okumiya, a director at Nittoc in an interview.

Nuclear Reactors

“The demand for quake-resistance is on the rise for infrastructure such as railways, nuclear reactors and seaports,” said Okumiya. “Because of the earthquake, the speed of discussion has accelerated and a higher standard of protection has been requested.”

Suppliers are now looking to markets overseas, especially to the building boom in China. Japan has about 2,500 buildings that have seismic isolation systems, compared with about 1,000 to 1,500 in China, said Nobuo Murota, manager of seismic isolation & vibration control products development at Bridgestone Corp. The world’s biggest tire maker has about half the market in Japan for multi-rubber bearings used to shift seismic energy away from structures.

“The penetration of quake-resistant technology is very fast in China,” Murota said. “We expect demand to eventually exceed Japan. We haven’t focused on the global market until now.”

Nittoc last year gained the first overseas contracts in its 63-year history, advising on projects in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. The company aims to expand in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia and expects overseas orders to account for as much as 20 percent of revenue within 10 years, Okumiya said.

Shares Rise

Shares of Nittoc more than doubled this year, while Taylor Devices has risen 12 percent. Mitsubishi Estate, which gets the bulk of its revenue from office leasing, has fallen 9.3 percent.

The devastation of Christchurch’s center in February may also prompt cities to reinforce existing landmarks. Shimizu has installed seismic isolation in the Osaka Central Public Hall, built in 1918 of red brick, and the 52-year old National Museum of Western Art, designed by French architect Le Corbusier.

Even with Japan’s stringent building code, its March 11 earthquake destroyed or damaged more than 530,000 homes, many from a tsunami generated by the seismic upheaval.

Builders have attempted for centuries to make quake-resistant structures. U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel to withstand shaking. When the hotel opened on the day of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 that killed 143,000 people, it was one of the few major buildings to survive intact, opening its doors to thousands of refugees.

Japan’s land ministry requires buildings to be able to withstand a temblor of a strength that typically happens only once in 500 years. Shimizu’s research facility in Tokyo aims to develop structures that will withstand even stronger shocks.

A test building that partially floats on water and stands on rubber bearings cut the effect of the March quake by more than half, said Masaaki Saruta, Vibration Control Engineering Group Leader at Shimizu.

“We want to come up with technologies that save people’s lives,” he said.

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