Don Ward, CEO of Constructing Excellence, reports on his unforgettable trip to Tokyo
When Don Ward flew to Japan in March with 13 senior industry managers representing the best of Britain’s construction firms plus the Nuclear Industry Association, the trip promised to offer a fascinating insight into the Japanese approach to construction solutions. Previous study tours led by Constructing Excellence, which exists to improve industry performance to produce a better built environment, had focused on buildings and roads. The purpose of the latest expedition was to explore nuclear power station construction and to look at developments for earthquake-resistant buildings.
Mr Ward and his group of consultants from member organizations including Balfour Beatty, Amec, Skanska and Kier, had no idea how much they would learn first-hand about buildings in earthquakes. After a variety of trips to contractors, operators and research institutes the group were in Tokyo when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck on 11 March. While the memory of the earthquake will never leave them, the team also brought back valuable lessons to share with quality professionals and the British construction industry.
Mr Ward said: 'We take British companies to Japan to show them how they work, particularly at site level but also in their design offices. It’s about setting the benchmark by showing them how good the process can be and what is possible.
'We also took procurement consultants from places like the Collaborative Working Centre, who try to replicate a lot of what Japan does in terms of lean and supply chain integration in the UK.
'Above all else, the thing you notice most about Japanese construction is plan, plan, plan. They spend much more time in design and planning in order that the on-site construction, which is the expensive, intensive, risky bit, will be as efficient and right-first-time as possible. The longer design periods help to achieve significantly shorter construction periods at all levels, from the mega-project to the little projects like street works.'
Japanese construction consultants take the same approach when designing for earthquakes − a constant threat to the population. While the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear reactor incident exposed frailties in many buildings, the effects of the earthquake alone were significantly reduced by the building design features. Images of the destruction in Christchurch, New Zealand, and more recently in Lorca, Spain, provide a stark contrast to the incredible constructions in Japan which are still standing.
The study tour visited the Shimizu Research Center in Tokyo, which is designed to realize next-generation, environmentally friendly architecture. Its earthquake engineering group aims to accelerate and advance the development of disaster-mitigation technologies to minimize the damage caused by earthquakes. The company’s structural safety and reliability facility promotes the proactive development of earthquake-resistance technologies as well as seismic-isolation and vibration-control technologies. In its research and development for concrete-fabricated structures the facility focuses on technologies related to quality management during construction, monitor-based maintenance technologies, and technologies related to repair and reinforcement.
Mr Ward said: 'Their latest earthquake-resistant buildings were very impressive. The basic method, whereby all of Tokyo’s buildings withstood the earthquake, is to use large rubber bearings which sit on the pillars at the base of the building. The pillars go down to the bedrock but the rubber bearing allows the building to rock rather than shake.
'The whole building is designed to rock, hence why it’s so terrifying being in the building. I can now tell you from experience, it rocks way more than you would expect. The research institute is now looking at new developments of that principle, for example, a building which is half submerged in water so the pillars and bearings are in water. The water takes half the weight of the building, acting as an extra dampener.
'Another really interesting design which demonstrates seismic isolation was the lift shafts, which are not built upwards but suspended from the roof of the building. The shafts then sway when an earthquake hits, rather than damaging the building.
'They’ve extended that principle on a much larger scale by using an experimental building, four-storey high, with a 1,000-square-foot footplate, and suspending it on a steel frame like a giant swing. The whole building hangs from the top, with a six-inch gap at the bottom, allowing it to sway during an earthquake.'
Just days before they were due to return home, the study group was able to witness the swaying buildings in the real world. At 2.56pm on 11 March, Tokyo felt the full force of Japan’s worst earthquake. Mr Ward said: 'We were 150 miles from the epicentre but actually that’s not far. At first, it was terrifying – the sixth strongest earthquake ever and Japan’s biggest.
'I was on the 10th floor of our hotel and it was like being on a small boat in mountainous seas. I eventually ran down the fire escape and got out to the street to watch the buildings swaying by 15 feet or more.
'It’s one thing to design cleverly and use the dampening concepts but it’s another thing to have the build quality that ensured nothing got damaged in Tokyo. It was tremendous – nothing fell down. A lot of people noticed that we didn’t even see a pain of glass come out. For nothing to come out is a tribute to the engineering and the quality of the build.'
All members of the study tour were able to return home safely, thanks largely to the quality of the Japanese construction process.
Don Ward is CEO of Constructing Excellence in the Built Environment. Read more about his career in the Lifelines interview in the May issue of Qualityworld