The University of Maryland, with a $73,839 federal grant from the National Science Foundation, is about to establish a research center on structural problems ranging from leaky ceilings in homes to the kind of faults that resulted in the collapse of walkways at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City.
"We hope to be able to save lives within a few years," said Donald W. Vannoy, associate professor of civil engineering and one of the center's co-directors. "We will be able to do this by having architects and engineers use our computer data base to help build buildings, bridges, roads and dams . . . with a minimum amount of structural dangers."
The proposed Architecture and Engineering Performance Center is expected to be used by design architects and engineers, liability insurers, lawyers on litigation cases involving collapsed structures and officials overseeing building codes and standards.
"Locally, the problems are often undramatic but extremely significant," said Frederick Krimgold, the NSF's project manager. "Water penetration in curtain walls, the nonstructural skin of a building, is causing a lot of problems here in homes. Water leaks account for a tremendous amount of economic loss, but they are not life-threatening."
Krimgold said computers will be able to track common denominators in curtain wall problems that "amount to a tremendous amount of legal actions against builders."
"We haven't looked into the full range of interrelationships between man and building, of which the structural failure is the most dramatic, especially when there is a loss of life," said John Loss, associate dean of the School of Architecture and the other co-director of the project. "Some [structural problems] are definitely understood, but for economic reasons, are not dealt with."
Paul Jalecki of Victor O. Schinnerer Co., a Washington-based insurance underwriter, said: "Right now, this has been a problem accentuated by exploding technology in new products -- especially in roofing products," which allow water to enter buildings.
Schinnerer is among those contributing claim documents to the data base because the insurance industry probably will use the system to evaluate premiums and give a break to those using the safest construction techniques, Jalecki said.
The computer system also will draw on information supplied by the American Institute of Architects, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Federal Highway Administration and government agencies in Canada, Switzerland, Italy and the United Kingdom.
Vannoy said he believes the data bank could have forewarned architects of design flaws which led to such structural disasters as the fall of the Hyatt walkways, the bursting of the Teton Dam in 1976 and the collaspe of an 80-foot-wide, 24-floor section of Skyline Plaza North in Baileys Crossroads when it was being constructed in 1973. Fourteen construction workers were killed in that Fairfarx County accident.
Krimgold said that another "clearly avoidable" problem is the "$40 million refurbishing of the roof of the Kennedy Center that was necessary because it drained backwards, causing the ceiling to fall down." Krimgold said attention usually is focused on building structures when there is a catastrophe, "but there may be a more significant problem that only kills one or two people at a time.
"In engineering, we learn much more from our mistakes than our successes. There is a tremendous amount of information in each of these failure situations that we can use to advance our knowledge," Krimgold said. Previous attempts to document structural deficiencies have been tied to isolated incidents or handicapped by poor record-keeping, according to the NSF.
"Too often it is only the dramatic cases of total building collapse which receive attention," Loss said.
Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who recently conducted congressional hearings on structural failures, plans to introduce legislation that would establish a new federal agency charged with studying building failures and suggesting preventive measures. Jalecki said that task should be left to others, such as the University of Maryland.