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Impact of wobbly bridges and sky-scrapers on human health to be tested in new government-funded research centre

Posted on March 21st 2017

skyscraper

The impact of vibrations from very tall buildings, wobbly bridges and floors on people’s health and wellbeing is to be researched in a new £7.2 million government-funded national research facility at the universities of Exeter and Bath.

By recreating the vibrations using virtual-reality simulators, a multi-disciplinary team of engineers, physiologists, psychologists and medics, including PenCLAHRC’s Dr Vicki Goodwin, will explore how people can experience different symptoms of motion sickness such as tiredness, low mood, difficulty concentrating and lack of motivation if they are working in a building that sways slightly in the wind.

Despite looking rigid in appearance, tall buildings flex in response to external forces, and strong winds can make them vibrate or sway at low frequencies, sometimes with bursts of motion at random intervals.

Studies have already indicated that very subtle building motion can be perceived by some occupants, potentially inducing motion sickness and causing fear. The virtual-reality simulators will help the research team better understand how this could affect the wellbeing of these people, their work performance or behaviour.

The ‘VSimulators’ will recreate not only the structural motion people experience but the surroundings, temperature, humidity, noise, air quality and even smells of buildings. State-of-the-art virtual reality and human body motion capture equipment will help the team to devise solutions to mitigate impact and help designers, planners, architects and engineers in the construction or refurbishment of buildings.

The facility will also bring benefits for healthcare, helping medics design rehabilitation programmes for people with problems with movement, including people with dementia.

Dr Goodwin helped design the healthcare applications of VSimulators. She said:

“This new world class facility will help us better understand how people move. This will help us to create supportive environments, for example for people with dementia. It will also help us develop rehabilitation programmes, including those using technology, to improve movement and ultimately wellbeing.”

Over five years the two universities will inject £2.45m into the project, with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) contributing a further £4.8m to create the vibration simulator in a brand new building at the University of Exeter, and undertake a major laboratory refurbishment in Bath.

Professor Alex Pavic, Professor of Vibration Engineering at the University of Exeter, who was an expert adviser on the ‘wobbly’ Millennium Bridge in London and on the design of the London Olympic 2012 venues, says the new testing facility will “place humans at the centre of future structural building design in the same way they are currently placed when designing cars.”

Professor Pavic continued:

“Humans spend 90% of their lives in buildings which vibrate non-stop, but there is still very little reliable information about the effect of structural vibration.

 

With over 400 tall buildings planned just for London between now and 2030, and many more in the rest of the UK and worldwide, VSimulators will potentially have major influence on the design of a future multi-£trillion worldwide portfolio of buildings. It will for the first time link structural motion, environmental conditions and human body motion, psychology and physiology in a fully controllable virtual environment.”

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