Nelson Lam has been a member of the Institution since 1990. He worked as a structural design engineer in the Hong Kong Office of Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners from 1982 to 1989, before moving to Australia to begin an academic career in earthquake engineering at The University of Melbourne. He will be one of the keynote speakers at our International Conference in Singapore in September.
Here he talks about earthquake engineering and how structural engineers can contribute to the recovery mission in Nepal.
In my early career I always had the belief that the industry had a lot to learn about structural behaviour, and that we would do things very differently if we gained a better understanding. This was precisely what motivated me to make a move into academia.
In 1989 I moved to Melbourne and begin studies for a PhD in earthquake engineering. This was the time of the Newcastle Earthquake, which caused massive damage and 11 deaths in the country. Afterwards the University of Melbourne received Government funding to take a lead in earthquake engineering for regions of low-to-moderate seismicity – like Australia and the UK.
I think my greatest accomplishment has been developing new modelling methodologies. Program GENQKE, which I wrote back in 1996, generates artificial accelerograms on rock in areas where strong motion recordings are lacking. Companies like ARUP have been using it to help develop earthquake design loading models for various cities across South East Asia, including Hong Kong.
What enthuses me most about teaching is empowering students with the kind of skills and knowledge that is not widely shared, yet extremely useful in practice. I also enjoy researching those topics which pose the greatest challenges to practicing engineers, then sharing the research outcomes with graduate students and design engineers alike.
I have three PhD students from Nepal involved alongside a number of graduate students and the Disaster Management and Public Safety Research Centre (CDMPS - from the University's Department of Infrastructure Engineering) to co-ordinate the delivery of assistance to the country after the recent earthquake.
Structural engineers will make a real contribution helping to get the country back on its feet. In the emergency response phase they helped by stabilising badly damaged structures and developing better ways to retrieve survivors who were trapped underneath debris. In the recovery phase they will contribute by advising on ways to improve existing methods of construction, so that new buildings perform better in a future event.
In my opinion, the priority for structural engineers’ approach to earthquake engineering is in how to avert potential damage to existing buildings. We need to develop new techniques to more accurately identify vulnerable features in existing construction so that retrofitting can be prioritised.
In the case of the earthquake in Nepal (as for the earthquake in Sichuan, China in 2008) many of the buildings were destroyed by landslides. Thus, site selection and proper town planning is as important as structural design.
I am very impressed by the itinerary for the Singapore Conference, which features speakers from different fields of expertise in both academia and industry. There will be a great deal to learn and I very much look forward to taking part.