Take a sneak peek at the new NIST.gov and let us know what you think!
(Please note: some content may not be complete on the beta site.).

View the beta site
NIST logo
Bookmark and Share

Earthquake Risk Reduction in Buildings and Infrastructure Program


The program develops advances in measurement science related to earthquake engineering, including performance-based tools, guidelines, and standards for designing buildings to resist earthquake effects, improve building safety, and enhance disaster resilience. This fulfills the NIST applied research role in the statutory four-agency National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) (reference 1) and includes in-house and extramural research performed in five major program element areas:

  • Program Element (PE) 1: Improved Building Codes and Standards Provisions;
  • Program Element (PE) 2: Performance-Based Seismic Engineering (PBSE) for New and Existing Buildings;
  • Program Element (PE) 3: Lateral Force-Resisting Structural Elements and Systems;
  • Program Element (PE) 4: Tools and Guidelines for Improved Earthquake Engineering Practice; and,
  • Program Element (PE) 5: National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) Coordination.

Program Elements 1-4 address applied earthquake engineering research needs, while Program Element 5 fulfills the statutory NIST NEHRP Lead Agency role of coordinating the research and implementation activities of the four NEHRP agencies – the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), NIST, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). See reference 1.

Projects in Program Elements 1-4 are largely derived from the "research roadmap" that was released in 2013 by nationally leading researchers and practitioners working under the Building Seismic Safety Council (BSSC) umbrella (reference 2).


This program has two broad objectives: (1) Develop and deploy advances in measurement science related to earthquake engineering - including performance-based tools, guidelines, and standards for designing buildings to resist earthquake effects and improve building safety, thus enhancing disaster resilience of buildings, infrastructure, and communities; and,(2) Perform the statutory Lead Agency duties for the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP). See reference 1.

What is the problem?

The problem is technical, programmatic, and societal, extending from widespread earthquake hazards and associated risks in the built environment to a lack of comprehensive, full-spectrum research, implementation, and outreach. The technical aspects of the problem result from the complexity and variability of the impacts of earthquake-induced ground motions on buildings and infrastructure. The programmatic aspects of the problem arise from the highly multi-disciplinary and multi-agency nature of addressing it. The societal challenge is large and growing, because damaging earthquakes occur so infrequently in human timescales that leaders and society-at-large tend to forget about the problem, leading to neglecting the need to address it.

Damaging earthquakes are infrequent; but, they come without warning, creating potentially catastrophic injury and loss of life, and damage to the built environment that creates significant economic loss and societal disruption. Earthquakes of magnitude 6.5 (M6.5) or greater are known to have occurred in Alaska, California, the Pacific Northwest, South Carolina, the Intermountain West, the Central U.S., and New England. While U.S. earthquake activity has been relatively quiet since the 1994 Northridge event, major 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan re-emphasized the potential impacts of such events, even in well-developed areas that are similar to the U.S. in terms of quality of the built environment.

A 2003 Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) report (reference 3) stated that a single large earthquake in a major U.S. urban area could easily cause combined direct and indirect economic losses between $100B and $200B (reference 4). The report noted that population growth and economic investment needed to sustain national quality of life, and increased societal interconnectedness associated primarily with increased urbanization, have led to placing greatly increased numbers of lives and extent of the built environment at risk. A recent study reported by the Seismological Society of America (reference 16) indicates that over 143 million Americans are exposed to potentially damaging earthquake, with as many as 28 million Americans likely to experience strong shaking in their lifetimes. This is a significant increase in the numbers of vulnerable Americans, as compared to earlier such reports, due primarily to population growth and urbanization.

The 2003 EERI report also explained that U.S. model building codes emphasize occupant life safety, with little consideration given to economic losses or recovery (i.e., resilience). This was an early recognition that earthquake preparedness should extend to providing local, state, and national earthquake resilience (reference 5).

The NEHRP agencies cast a vision of an earthquake-resilient nation in the NEHRP Strategic Plan (reference 6). The present Administration has recognized that national resilience in the face of risks from hazards is a vital challenge (reference 7). The National Research Council endorsed the NEHRP vision in its 2011 report (reference 8), stating that "A disaster-resilient nation is one in which its communities, through mitigation and pre-disaster preparation, develop the adaptive capacity to maintain important community functions and recover quickly when major disasters occur."

While earthquake-resistant design provisions for new buildings in U.S. model building codes have been improved, their focus has continued to be on occupant life safety using inflexible prescriptive design procedures. The typical code-compliant building may withstand the effects of moderate earthquakes but will likely be severely damaged when subjected to larger events, leading to costly repair work, or demolition and replacement, severely limiting societal resilience. The nation's existing building stock is more vulnerable to earthquake damage than newly designed buildings, posing higher societal risk, both in terms of life safety and resilience. Cost-effective seismic evaluation and mitigation methodologies for existing buildings are not widely available or applied.

As national leaders realize the need for improved resilience with respect to all hazards, the criticality of lifeline resilience in sustaining quality of life and economic strength will become more prominent. The nation's infrastructure is aging and, in many areas, deteriorating. Maintaining the serviceability of individual energy, communication, water, transportation, and waste lifeline systems is critical to societal resilience. Further, the interconnectedness of these separate (but not independent!) lifeline systems is a major factor in their serviceability and in societal resilience.

What is the technical idea?

NIST EL has two broad responsibilities within NEHRP.

First, EL fulfills statutory NEHRP Lead Agency responsibilities: supporting the NEHRP Interagency Coordinating Committee (ICC) and the Advisory Committee on Earthquake Hazards Reduction (ACEHR); drafting and updating NEHRP strategic and management plans; documenting NEHRP agency budgets; and submitting annual reports to Congress on NEHRP activities.

Second, through its NEHRP research program, NIST has developed broad technical goals for its earthquake risk mitigation research. The NEHRP agencies mutually developed the NEHRP Strategic Plan (reference 6) that outlines a coordinated NEHRP-wide approach to research and implementation based on a vision for a nation that is earthquake-resilient in public safety, economic strength, and national security. The Plan also established nine strategic priorities for the NEHRP agencies to pursue, depending on the availability of future resources. In 2011, the National Research Council (NRC) completed a NIST-commissioned study that produced a twenty-year "roadmap" for earthquake resilience research, implementation, and outreach (reference 8). The roadmap endorsed the NEHRP Strategic Plan and provided a comprehensive perspective that was developed by leading North American earthquake professionals.

EL research planning addresses NIST responsibilities outlined by the Strategic Plan and NRC roadmap. The responsibilities were outlined philosophically in the 2003 NIST earthquake R&D program plan provided by ATC 57 (reference 9). From 2006 through 2013, individual research projects followed the "ATC 57 roadmap philosophy" and satisfied needs that have been suggested by leading earthquake engineering practitioners and researchers in various national publications and validated through interactions with engineers who are actively developing national standards for seismic design, primarily ASCE/SEI 7 (reference 11).

EL subsequently commissioned the Building Seismic Safety Council (BSSC) to develop a ten-year research roadmap for recommended NIST-specific research that encompasses the ATC 57 philosophical goals, the NEHRP Strategic Plan, and the broad research directions set by the NRC study. BSSC released this roadmap report (reference 2) in early 2013. The 2013-2014 EL program began a transition to the recommended roadmap work and the proposed 2016 EL program continues this transition. Key features of the ongoing and proposed work are significant interactions with the partner NEHRP agencies, integrated analytical and experimental research, and continuing engagement with leading earthquake researchers and practitioners in the private sector and in academia, largely via its extramural Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract with the Applied Technology Council (ATC). In addition, EL memberships in the BSSC Provisions Update Committee, the ASCE/SEI 7 Seismic Subcommittee, ASCE 41 Standard Committee, and corresponding ACI and AISC technical committees bring the latest technical ideas to the EL program.

To fulfill its NEHRP research responsibilities, NIST EL leverages the specialized expertise of a small number of in-house research structural engineers with the broader and deeper technical expertise available through its contractual relationship with the ATC. This permits EL to combine analytical and experimental efforts, consult with leading practicing engineers and researchers, and apply multi-disciplinary expertise to high-priority research needs. For example, recent and planned ATC task orders have addressed important geotechnical engineering needs of the NEHRP community that could not be addressed adequately by the in-house staff.

Significantly, all of these activities share the common thread of improved resilience. Earthquake resilience can be enhanced significantly by developing robust capabilities to predict and mitigate effects of earthquakes on building and lifeline systems and on communities-at-large. Resilience requires developing validated: (1) data to characterize the risk environment; (2) validated, rigorous models to predict performance of structures and lifelines to failure; (3) metrics for measuring performance, including interactions of building and lifeline systems; (4) acceptance criteria for different performance objectives (not only life safety); (5) mitigation strategies based on evaluated performance; and, (6) community-scale loss estimation tools.

What is the research plan?

Since 2006, the NEHRP agencies have jointly developed two broad planning documents: the NEHRP Strategic Plan (reference 6) and the NRC Roadmap (reference 8). The Plan outlines the NEHRP agencies' broad collective vision of the work needed to make the U.S. an earthquake-resilient nation. The Roadmap provides national expert recommendations on research, implementation, and outreach activities involving all NEHRP agencies that are needed to fulfill the vision for national earthquake resilience presented in the Strategic Plan.

I support of its role in fulfilling the NRC Roadmap, NIST commissioned the Building Seismic Safety Council (BSSC) to develop a roadmap of NIST research that will address the needs outlined in the NRC Roadmap. The BSSC Roadmap (reference 2) provides national expert consensus planning for NIST earthquake engineering research for buildings, for highest priority (to be accomplished in less than three years), higher priority (3-5 years), and high priority (5-8 years) needs. The planned 2016 program continues transitioning to significant reliance on the BSSC recommendations. 

Paralleling the suggested BSSC approach, the program is subdivided into five complementary research program elements:  

Program Element 1: Improved Building Codes and Standards Provisions;

Program Element 2: Performance-Based Seismic Engineering (PBSE) for New and Existing Buildings;

Program Element 3: Lateral Force-Resisting Structural Elements and Systems;

Program Element 4: Tools and Guidelines for Improved Earthquake Engineering Practice; and,

Program Element 5: National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) Coordination  

Program Elements 1-4 address major technical areas of earthquake engineering research for improved design and construction of new and existing buildings. Due to resource limitations, the program now largely emphasizes research related to new buildings. Research in the existing buildings area and in lifelines will ultimately be needed to support earthquake resilience in communities. If a proposed FY 2016 NIST research initiative is supported, additional program elements addressing existing buildings and lifelines may be added.

Program Element 5 supports the NEHRP Lead Agency role that is stipulated in PL 108-360 (NEHRP authorizing legislation). This program element is a recurring, non-research, requirement in the Program that is largely unchanged from year to year.

Following is a brief discussion of FY 2016 research that is planned for each program element: 

Program Element (PE) 1 consists of short-term practical, applied research projects that improve seismic design practice, and building code and standard development. National model building codes contain prescriptive seismic provisions that have largely evolved from practitioner experience, without specific research results to substantiate them. This Program Element is devised to provide those research results.

Proposed 2016 PE 1 research includes one in-house project, Collapse Assessment of Buildings Under Seismic Loading, which is an extension of an FY 2014-2015 project, Vertical Distribution of Lateral Forces and Approximate Fundamental Period. Lessons learned in the earlier work are being used to structure the new project, which will use nonlinear analysis approaches first promulgated in the FEMA P695 report, Quantification of Building Seismic Performance Factors, to correlate the building performance levels described in ASCE/SEI 7 with those described in ASCE/SEI 41. This is a vital step in equilibrating the design approaches that are used in prescriptive (ASCE/SEI 7 – reference 11) procedures with those used in performance-based seismic design (ASCE/SEI 41 – reference 14) procedures.

There is also a proposed 2016 PE 1 extramural task order, Survey of Liquefaction Effects on Buildings. This project was highly recommended by practicing structural and geotechnical engineers in the BSSC roadmap (reference 2). It will undertake the first step in an extended process to develop improved, comprehensive guidance for practitioners who encounter soils with high liquefaction potential when they are designing buildings. Given that pipelines and other lifelines are also frequently located in areas with liquefiable soils, this project will also impact future lifeline research and implementation activities. 

Program Element (PE) 2 emphasizes developing the technical basis for performance-based seismic engineering (PBSE) and focuses on developing metrics for measuring performance and acceptance criteria for different performance objectives. A major issue in PBSE is the requirement for performing accurate nonlinear analysis of building performance during different earthquake shaking intensities; the proposed EL work keys on it. A 2009 report produced by the Building Seismic Safety Council (BSSC) for NIST provides a research and implementation needs report (reference 13) that guides planning for NIST PBSE research.

The proposed 2016 PE 2 in-house project, Validation of ASCE 41 Procedures in PBSE, continues research begun in 2011, benchmarking the validity of a current PBSE methodology that applies ASCE/SEI 41 (reference 14) analysis procedures that were developed for existing buildings to new buildings. The 2016 research focuses on reporting research to validate the use of ASCE 41 procedures in the design of new Buckling-Restrained Braced Frame (BRBF) systems and continues the validation of the use of the procedures in the design of new Reinforced Concrete (RC) Special Moment Frames (SMFs). The project will produce recommended modeling approaches and design criteria for performance-based design of these frame systems. Complementing the in-house research will be a task order contract to provide detailed external peer review of the research.  

A second proposed 2016 PE 2 in-house project is Assessment of Available Collapse Simulation Methods for Use in PBSE. This project is a reorientation of the FY 2015 project, Energy-Based Collapse Simulation Methodology for Use in PBSE. Based on the results of a December 2014 peer review of that project, the reorientation was undertaken. Reference 13 identified improving analytical modeling and demand assessment for buildings in near collapse scenarios as the second highest priority research area needed to support full implementation of PBSE. The 2016 project will effectively complete the work in this area, focusing on assessing critical issues concerning nonlinear mechanics of structures at near-collapse conditions and benchmarking the accuracy of practitioner-oriented commercial structural analysis software in near-collapse conditions using high-end nonlinear finite element analysis modeling.  

Program Element (PE) 3 focuses on developing higher fidelity models for predicting the seismic performance of Lateral Force-Resisting Structural Elements and Systems through experimental and/or experiential validation. PE 3's primary goal is to improve seismic engineering practice via performing and analyzing laboratory testing.

An FY 2016 in-house project, Stability of Steel Wide-Flange Beam-Columns in Seismic Loading, is a proposed continuation of research begun in 2014. The project will develop global and local buckling models and improved concepts of inelastic stability for axially-loaded deep, slender wide-flange steel sections, such as those used for lower-story columns in mid-rise buildings in seismically active areas. This work was identified as an area of major research need by an extramural panel of experts in NIST GCR 11-917-13 (reference 15). Extramural laboratory testing of approximately 20 steel beam-column sections has been performed at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and approximately 20 more similar tests will be conducted under an FY 2015 task order. The initial laboratory testing has shown some unanticipated and potentially dangerous responses to seismic loading. The in-house research complements the UCSD testing with high fidelity finite element modeling to develop validated design relationships for the beam-columns. The new UCSD testing will extend into FY 2017, so this in-house project will extend into FY 2017, ultimately producing validated design guidance, including modeling techniques, for inclusion in ASCE and AISC seismic design standards.

A proposed FY 2016 PE 3 extramural project, Performance of Ordinary Reinforced Concrete (RC) Columns Under Combined Gravity and Seismic Loading, was originally planned for FY 2015 award, but the results of the UCSD testing on steel beam-columns convinced the research team that additional work was needed in that area before this new project is initiated. This project seeks to improve the simulation and prediction of the shear and axial load-deformation response of ordinary RC columns in the PBSE framework. RC columns that do not meet the stringent reinforcement requirements for "special" columns as defined by ACI 318 (reference 16) are known as "ordinary" columns. "Ordinary" reinforced concrete columns are found in regions of low to moderate seismicity and are also typical of older structures that were designed under less robust design rules than those that exist today. The research will collect and review available experimental data as well as numerical models on the shear and axial load failure response of concrete columns, and utilize the information to improve their numerical modeling.  

Program Element (PE) 4 develops synthesis documents, most of which are known as "techbriefs." Techbriefs are short, succinct documents that distill research findings, findings of professional committees and task groups, and cost-effective and code-compliant detailing practices into forms usable by practitioners. Techbriefs have been produced extramurally at the rate of one or two per year. In FY 2016 extramural work, one new techbrief will be added to the growing series; the planned topic is design of precast reinforced concrete diaphragms.  

Program Element (PE) 5, National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) Coordination, supports all activities of the NEHRP Office ("Secretariat"), which is organizationally located in EL. The Office performs all administrative and management activities to fulfill the NEHRP Lead Agency role - support for all activities of the ICC and ACEHR, interagency program coordination via the Program Coordination Working Group, required reporting (e.g., NEHRP Annual Report), and routine knowledge transfer activities (e.g., NEHRP web site). These administrative activities are ongoing each year and involve combined efforts of the in-house staff and an administrative support IDIQ. The Office also supports NIST's role as lead agency for the U.S.-Japan Cooperative Program in Natural Resources (UJNR) Panel on Wind and Seismic Effects and the federal Interagency Committee on Seismic Safety in Construction (ICSSC). Current plans call for working with the Japanese to reform the UJNR partnership into a more informal agency-to-agency relationship that leverages current electronic communications technology.

Reference Documents:

1. National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program of 1977, as amended, http://www.nehrp.gov/about/PL108-360.htm.

2. Development of NIST Measurement Science R&D Roadmap: Earthquake Risk Reduction in Buildings, NIST GCR 13-917-23, 2013.

3. Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, Securing Society Against Catastrophic Earthquake Losses: A Research and Outreach Plan in Earthquake Engineering, January 2003.

4. The EERI report (reference 2) projected losses in terms of 2003 dollars. These costs are estimated to range between $125B and $250B in 2015.

5. In the context of this program, resilience may be thought of as the capability of a community to develop the adaptive capacity, through mitigation and pre-disaster preparation, to maintain important community functions and recover quickly when a major disaster occurs. Source: reference 6.

6. Strategic Plan for the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, Fiscal Years 2009-2013, October 2008.

7. National Preparedness, Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-8, The White House, March 30, 2011.

8. National Research Council, National Earthquake Resilience: Research, Implementation, and Outreach, 2011.

9. Applied Technology Council, The Missing Piece: Improving Seismic Design and Construction Practices, ATC 57, 2003.

10. NEHRP Advisory Committee on Earthquake Hazards Reduction, Effectiveness of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, May 2008.

11. American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE Standard, Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures, ASCE/SEI 7-10, 2010.

12. A corporate partnership of the Applied Technology Council and the Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering.

13. Research Required to Support Full Implementation of Performance-Based Seismic Design, NIST GCR 09-917-2, NIST, 2009.

14. American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE Standard, Seismic Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings, ASCE/SEI 41-06, 2007.

15. Research Plan for the Study of Seismic Behavior and Design of Deep, Slender Wide-Flange Structural Steel Beam-Column Members, NIST GCR 11-917-13.

16. Seismological Society of America news release, More Americans at risk from strong earthquake, says new report, http://www.seismosoc.org/society/press_releases/SSA_2015_EarthquakeThreat_Press_Release.pdf .

Major Accomplishments:

Some recent accomplishments for the Earthquake Risk Reduction in Buildings and Infrastructure Program include:

  • The NEHRP Secretariat was created at NIST in 2006, and the EL Earthquake Risk Mitigation R&D Program was re-started in 2007.
  • The NEHRP Advisory Committee on Earthquake Hazards Reduction (ACEHR) was formed in mid-2007 and has has provided annual assessments on the program to the NIST Director in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.
  • The NEHRP Strategic Plan was released in October 2008. In March 2011, the NRC produced for NEHRP a twenty-year roadmap of all research and implementation activities needed to support improved national earthquake resilience.
  • NEHRP activated the first generation of the “NEHRP Document Clearinghouse,” where all NEHRP-related documents available through the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) are available on-line at no cost to the user.
  • Seven techbriefs have been produced: Downloads available Here
    • Seismic Design of Reinforced Concrete Special Moment Frames: A Guide for Practicing Engineers, NIST GCR 08-917-1;
    • Seismic Design of Steel Special Moment Frames: A Guide for Practicing Engineers, NIST GCR 09-917-3;
    • Seismic Design of Cast-in-Place Concrete Diaphragms, Chords, and Collectors: A Guide for Practicing Engineers, NIST GCR 10-917-4;
    • Nonlinear Structural Analysis for Seismic Design: A Guide for Practicing Engineers, NIST GCR 10-917-5;
    • Seismic Design of Composite Steel Deck and Concrete-Filled Diaphragms: A Guide for Practicing Engineers, NIST GCR 11-917-10;
    • Seismic Design of Cast-in-Place Concrete Special Structural Walls and Coupling Beams: A Guide for Practicing Seismic Design of Reinforced Concrete Mat Foundations: A Guide for Practicing Engineers, NIST GCR 12-917-22.


Seismic hazard map
Seismic hazard maps like this one are the basis for seismic design provisions of building codes, insurance rate structures, and land-use planning across the U.S.

Start Date:

October 1, 2011

Lead Organizational Unit:



Program Manager: Dr. Steven McCabe

Dr. Steven McCabe, Program Manager
301 975 8549 Telephone
301 990 5324 Fax  

100 Bureau Drive, M/S 8230
Gaithersburg, MD 20899-8230