Experts from the Universities of Exeter and Bath are launching a $AUS11.5 million study to investigate the impact of swaying skyscrapers on human health. Consisting of engineers, medics, physiologists and psychologists, the research team will attempt to gauge the effects of wobbly skyscrapers on occupants, especially whether the movements of tall buildings can trigger motion sickness, sleepiness and depression.

Skyscrapers are engineering marvels and modern technologies have ensured these buildings have thinner floor slabs and wider spacing between columns. However, these features also mean newer skyscrapers do not dampen vibrations as well as older ones. Though they may appear rigid, skyscrapers shift slightly in response to external forces such as construction work in the vicinity or trains rumbling past, while strong winds can make them vibrate or sway at low frequencies.

The research team will explore claims that people experience motion sickness, fatigue, depression, poor concentration and lack of motivation if they live or work in a building that sways slightly.

Testing simulators will be built in Exeter and Bath to measure movement from very tall buildings, offices and flats, football stadiums and rock concert venues, including the impact of vibrations caused by crowds simultaneously exiting a stadium or walking across bridges.

Alex Pavic, Professor of Vibration Engineering at the University of Exeter, and an expert adviser on the ‘wobbly’ Millennium Bridge project in London, observes that many people are living and working in high-rises and office blocks, but the true impact of vibrations on them is currently not understood fully.

Though humans spend 90 per cent of their lives in buildings that vibrate non-stop, there is still very little data about the effect of structural vibration. Pavic adds that the study will, for the first time, link structural motion, environmental conditions and human body motion, psychology and physiology in a fully controllable virtual environment.

Dr Antony Darby, Head of Civil Engineering at the University of Bath explains that an individual’s propensity to motion-induced discomfort is situation and environment dependent. The research team is equipped to simulate not only the structural motion, but the surroundings, temperature, noise, air quality, even smell, all of which contribute to the individual’s experience of, and tolerance to, building motion.

The facility has the backing of the building and design industry, which plans to use the findings to improve structural design.

Chris Pembridge, director of WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, a construction engineering company, said working with the research team will make a real difference to structural design where ground vibration and building movement are key challenges, such as sites adjacent to vibration-inducing infrastructure and in tall building design.

Prof Kenny Kwok of the University of Western Sydney, Australia, a world authority on the impact of tall-building vibrations, said the new test site could help establish standards for the levels of building motion that are acceptable.

The project is funded by Exeter and Bath universities and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.