Performance-Based Seismic Design for Safer High-Rises

F5 Tower

The City of Seattle knows that building codes for downtown Seattle are not safe for tall buildings in a strong earthquake. That’s why it now requires performance-based seismic design for all buildings over 240 feet tall.

What is Performance-Based Seismic Design?

Seismic design usually follows a prescriptive code, sort of like following a cookbook. Performance-based seismic design is a more rigorous seismic analysis, performed by a team of experienced geotechnical and structural engineers. Because the design doesn’t follow the cookbook code, this alternate design procedure must be done by top engineers, so that it meets the intent of the code while also going beyond the code in certain respects. It must also be peer-reviewed by experienced engineers—often the people who participated in developing the code in the first place.

Doug Lindquist, a principal geotechnical engineer with Hart Crowser, describes it this way: “Performance-based design is a design method where the geotechnical and structural engineers proactively evaluate the performance of a structure in terms of displacements, forces, moments, and damage level. Performance-based design often results in a more resilient, constructible, and valuable structure compared to prescriptive/reactive methods.”

In the early 2000s, Hart Crowser was the first local geotechnical firm to use modern performance-based seismic design methods in the Pacific Northwest. Our engineers have incrementally improved on our proprietary methods and procedures over the last 18 years.

When and Where is Performance-Based Seismic Design Used?

Performance-based seismic design is used for buildings taller than 240 feet—around twenty-four stories or higher. It is used in areas zoned for high-rises, and only when allowed by the local permitting jurisdiction (e.g., Seattle and Bellevue).

Examples of our 20+ performance-based seismic design projects include:

  • Rainier Square Tower, Seattle (850 feet tall)
  • F5 Tower, Seattle (660 feet tall)
  • Russell Investments Center, Seattle (598 feet tall)
  • Lincoln Square Expansion, Bellevue (two towers, 450 feet tall)
  • Cirrus, Seattle (440 feet tall)
  • Midtown 21, Seattle (322 feet tall)

Major western United States cities allowing performance-based seismic design include Seattle, Bellevue, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego.


Safer Design

Typical building design following the International Building Code (IBC) is based on the Design Earthquake (DE), which is defined as two-thirds of hazard level of the Risk-Adjusted Maximum Considered Earthquake (MCER). Using performance-based seismic design, the geotechnical engineer works closely with the structural engineers to analyze the building under both the DE and the MCER hazard levels. Because the building is analyzed under the higher MCER loading, the engineers have a better understanding of how the building will behave when subjected to strong ground motions. After review of many performance-based design projects, the City of Seattle identified deficiencies in the typical building design methods and now requires performance-based seismic design for all buildings taller than 240 feet.

Faster Construction and Lower Development Costs

When a building is so tall, the building code requires a dual seismic restraint system. This is like wearing both a belt and suspenders. If it’s a good belt, you don’t need the suspenders, and vice versa. Using performance-based seismic design allows you to build using one or the other. Just as it’s faster and more economical to dress donning only one fashion accessory, it’s faster and more economical to build only one structural system. This is allowed when the design engineers perform detailed analyses showing that the single system achieves the desired performance goals of the structure.

Improved Views and Higher Building Value

Eliminating cross-bracing or other exterior seismic restraint systems improves the building’s views, allowing floor-to-ceiling windows, which make the building more desirable to tenants.

Recent Advances

ASCE 7-16

Although it will not be required for use until 2020, improved methods in ASCE 7-16 have been used by Hart Crowser engineers since 2015. Certain provisions of this new code document allow for the removal of some of the extra conservatism built into the current building code. Hart Crowser was the first to use these methods in the Pacific Northwest, which result in reduced construction costs compared to older methods.

Ground Motions

Horizontal pairs of ground motions are provided by the geotechnical engineer to the structural engineer, who simulates the seismic response of the building subjected to these motions using a building model in the PERFORM 3D. There are thousands of ground motions in multiple public databases for geotechnical engineers to choose from to give to the structural engineer for design. Over the last 18 years, Hart Crowser has developed tools and techniques to identify, select, and scale the optimum ground motions that meet the source characteristics (e.g., magnitude, mechanism, spectral shape, site conditions, and source-to-site distance) and reduce the error between the target spectrum and ground motion spectra. This eliminates unnecessary conservatism and reduces construction cost compared to using less ideal ground motions.

Seattle Basin Amplification

The Seattle Basin amplifies ground motions compared to motions outside of a basin. Hart Crowser has been at the forefront of the practical implementation of research on the Seattle Basin into building design. Doug Lindquist has presented at both the 2013 and 2018 workshops on the subject organized by USGS and the City of Seattle.

Future Improvements

Future improvements will include enhanced scenario modeling to determine the strength of shaking at a building site (e.g., the M9 project) and additional advancements on incorporating basin amplification into design.

Lincoln Square Expansion

Lincoln Square Expansion in Bellevue, Washington.