Basin edge effects and damping

A structural engineer’s view


  • Rowan Ballagh Dunning Thornton Consultants, Wellington, New Zealand
  • Alistair Cattanach Dunning Thornton Consultants, Wellington, New Zealand



The Kaikōura earthquake brought the concept of basin effects to the forefront of conversation about building in the Wellington CBD. Local exceedances of ULS design spectra were observed in many waterfront sites in the 1.5-2.5s period range. This, coupled with low yield levels and certain structural forms present in previous generations of building design, meant that significant damage occurred in many buildings around the Wellington waterfront.

A primary cause for the high spectral accelerations was the geological structure of the Wellington CBD. This paper will focus on the behaviour of generic buildings in response to these particular ground motions and suggest how lessons from this can inform the design of future buildings. It uses the Kaikōura Earthquake as the centre point for discussions about the relationship between building behaviour on soft soils and the effects on this of different forms of damping. More broadly, the aim is to help spark debate in the earthquake engineering community on the question: What sorts of structures should we be building on soft soil sites?

This paper has been written in the wake of a number of damaging earthquakes throughout New Zealand, and with the concurrent increase in sophistication and spread of tools for analysing the effects of the ground motions induced by these earthquakes. The genesis of the ideas presented herein was in analysis of many waterfront buildings following the Kaikoura earthquake, and the attempts, often in vain, to match modelled building behaviour- where small tweaks in assumptions could have a radical effect on results- with actual observed damage – where cracks may have been seen in concrete or in partitions, but assessment of actual plastic strains reached in steel bars or beams was basically conjecture. 

This paper is broad in scope, therefore cannot possibly give each aspect the coverage of a series of papers which consider them in isolation and in detail. We nonetheless strongly believe that a holistic view of all topics is critical for design, and that the authors as ‘front line’ structural engineers are well positioned to present this. Sincere attempts have been made to justify our point of view with a strong basis in first principles, and backed by nonlinear time history analysis, or by reference to the work of others. We acknowledge that our beliefs are not shared by everyone and that some conclusions are provocative. It is neither the intent nor even the hope that we have the last word on this topic.


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How to Cite

Ballagh, R., & Cattanach, A. (2019). Basin edge effects and damping: A structural engineer’s view. Bulletin of the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering, 52(2), 67–77.