MSU at Forefront of Structural Fire Safety Research and Design

  • Venkatesh Kodur, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE, F.ACI, F.SEI, F.CAE, F.INAE
  • Professor and Director, SAFE-D Center
  • Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • College of Engineering
Picture of a burning bridge

Fire is a frightening and costly occurrence. There are thousands of examples each year of how fire claims lives and property, with a wide range of circumstances and outcomes. Venkatesh Kodur is an international leader known for his scientific experimentation and analytical modeling of the behavior of structural systems under extreme fire conditions, and his advocacy of performance-based fire safety design.

Dr. Kodur came to Michigan State University in 2005 from the National Research Council of Canada. He leads the Structural Fire Testing Facility (SAFE-D Center), a first-of-its-kind scientific operation opened in 2007 within MSU's Civil Infrastructure Laboratory. Through the SAFE-D Center, Dr. Kodur oversees a structural fire testing facility that simulates high temperatures, heat patterns and load distribution on structural members as encountered in real fires in buildings. This highly sophisticated fire test furnace is capable of reaching temperatures in excess of 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

"There is very little research that has been conducted, so what we are learning is invaluable to many people and has economic implications for how structures are designed, repaired, or upgraded," said Kodur.

The importance of fire safety in buildings is well known, but has received much more attention following the fire induced collapse of the twin towers and a number of other buildings in New York City on September 11, 2001. Dr. Kodur was a member of the expert's team for the World Trade Center Building Performance Study, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in conjunction with the American Society of Civil Engineers.

While the 9/11 tragedy is a prominent example, Kodur has worked with several federal agencies and industry leaders through the SAFE-D Center to address fire conditions in not only tall buildings, but also in bridges and other constructions that might have structural vulnerabilities when fires occur. Kodur has worked on projects funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Underwriter Laboratories, the Portland Cement Association, and the American Institute of Steel Construction.

Economic Impacts of Fire

Picture of a cement beam construction machine

The National Fire Protection Association estimates that the total cost of fire in the United States was $328 billion in 2010, or roughly 2.2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Property damage, insurance coverage, new building costs for fire protection, fire department costs, as well as the tragic consequences of human injuries and deaths all factor in to the economic influences resulting from fires.

One facet of Kodur's research involves how fire impacts structural performance, which can provide critical information for first responders, firefighters, and volunteers who are confronted with ruinous fires. Kodur's collaboration with Underwriter Laboratories and the U.S. Department of Commerce (NIST) focused on a series of experiments that generated data about the burning behavior of older versus newer types of wood. If a floor system is made of newer wood joists, such as engineered wood, the floor system fails much earlier as compared to older wood joists. This type of data on materials and structural systems being generated at MSU can provide critical information used to assess firefighting strategies, thus saving lives.

Kodur advocates "performance-based design," where developers include structural fire safety in the early design stages of building projects.

"Instead of it being thought of at the end of the design process, it should be included in the initial designs," said Kodur. "Then factors such as fire resistant materials, high temperature sensors, and a temperature profile consistent with realistic fire possibilities can be incorporated into the planning."

"What we are learning has economic implications for how structures are designed, repaired, or upgraded."

Venkatesh Kodur

A current international project, funded from Indo-U.S., involves working with researchers from institutes in India to develop innovative research methodologies and train researchers in fire safety.

"Fire is becoming a major problem in India because there are more high rises being built with too many combustible materials," said Kodur.

Another major collaboration is in Pakistan, with similar goals to train researchers and set up facilities to address fire safety enhancements for the country's infrastructure. That project is funded through the National Academy of Sciences.

Kodur sees promise in providing performance-based design research that moves forward from the prescriptive methodologies developed in the 1960's and 1970's still being used today.

"What are the mechanisms for collapse?" he questions. "And how can we improve design to strengthen and increase durability? How do we provide the facilities to develop and train people to solve these issues? These are important questions that affect the economic outcomes of repairing existing structures and building new ones. That is what our group is working to achieve."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Venkatesh Kodur, College of Engineering

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