You’d think that in this day in age of digital software, scientists wouldn’t need to destroy a real building to test the strength of its materials. But that’s exactly what’s happening this summer in Buffalo, where a team of Johns Hopkins engineers are using a hydraulic “shake table” to recreate the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles.

It turns out that despite how advanced computer simulations are these days, nothing compares to a real building. So for the past three years, a team of scientists from six universities and a handful of companies have taken part in a $1 million, National Science Foundation-funded study designed to test how well a new (and fairly untested) type of cold-formed steel stands up to seismic forces.

Scientists Replicate a San Andreas Fault Quake in Upstate New York

Cold-formed steel, you see, is thinner, lighter, and cheaper than traditional steel—so it has the potential to change the building industry. But it won’t, until companies know more about its behavior under stress.

The study's lynchpin is a massive, house-sized “shake table” at University of Buffalo. This 20-by-50 foot hydraulic platform has six degrees of movement capable of recreating the exact movements of any recent earthquake, and it’s equipped with 150 sensors and eight cameras to document destruction from every angle.

Razing a building (carefully) is actually a pretty complicated undertaking—especially when you’re trying to glean data from its collapse—so researchers have spent months testing different versions of a two-story steel office building that you might find in suburban LA. In May, the group began construction on the final version, which includes interior details like staircases (which could help explain whether superficial details contribute to structural integrity).

To test its strength of this bare-bones building realistically, it’s been “virtually sited” atop the San Andrea Fault Line, which cuts through Southern California. After going through a battery of tests this month, the building will face its final test in mid-August: a simulation of the infamous 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, the 20-second, 6.7 magnitude quake that killed dozens in LA.

Scientists Replicate a San Andreas Fault Quake in Upstate New York

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Data from that synthetic disaster will help the team finalize their findings from the three-year study. If they can prove that cold-formed steel can stand up to quakes, this could lead to some pretty major changes in how building code is written—and, eventually, could make buildings cheaper, lighter, and less wasteful. [Johns Hopkins Hub via Wired UK]