Preserving culture: protecting heritage buildings against earthquakes

heritage building

Our engineering researchers have developed breakthrough methods to earthquake-proof heritage buildings, advancing disaster resilience and safeguarding historic cultural sites around the globe.

When the iconic Notre Dame cathedral caught fire in 2019, it ignited profound global concern. This response shows we inherently understand the value of heritage buildings. They’re irreplaceable, tangible links to our past and cultural identity. In Australia, many pre-World War II buildings—churches, halls, pubs and even homes—remain vulnerable to natural disasters. Luckily, University of Adelaide researchers are earthquake-proofing our nation—and buildings around the world.

Dr Michael Griffith from the University's School of Civil, Environmental, and Mining Engineering has been researching unreinforced masonry (URM), the world’s most vulnerable building construction type, since Newcastle’s 1989 earthquake, which caused 13 deaths and over $1 billion in property damage.

Griffith’s biggest breakthrough was developing an analysis technique to quantify the bending limits of URM walls. First proposed in 2000, this seismic strengthening approach has evolved significantly over time and is now used throughout much of Europe and New Zealand.

But are Australians even at risk of earthquakes? According to Griffith, “Absolutely.”

“While destructive earthquakes are less frequent in Australia than other weather-related events, they can have severe impacts when they do occur close to communities,” Griffith says.

“One magnitude 5.9 quake in Rawson, Victoria, caused structural damage to properties in Melbourne over 100 kilometres away.”
Before 1990, Adelaide was the sole city in Australia with earthquake design requirements, so a large percentage of Australian buildings 30 years or older have questionable seismic resistance. 

“This is very concerning,” says Griffith’s research partner, Dr Jaroslav Vaculik. “Lots of our heritage URM buildings are highly vulnerable to earthquake effects.”

The risks to life, property, and local economies are substantial. These are the places that hold our stories. Heritage sites are cultural treasures—and economic engines. Historically significant towns like York in Western Australia, whose heritage-listed main streets comprise many URM buildings, depend heavily on tourism.

Preserving and retrofitting these structures is also often more economical—and environmentally friendly—than demolishing and rebuilding.
Recognising this, Griffith’s team have worked on more accurately evaluating the resilience of URM buildings. They have developed practical approaches to improve earthquake resistance, which maximises safety, minimises casualties, and ensures cost-effective repairs and a swift return to operation.

Their research was recently used to reinforce Adelaide’s Christchurch Cathedral, one of many heritage jewels now significantly more safeguarded against buckling, cracking, and collapsing.

What’s next?

As climate change escalates the frequency and severity of natural disasters in the coming years, building preservation efforts will have to evolve. Technology, especially artificial intelligence, will become more crucial in heritage conservation, enhancing monitoring, analysis, and planning processes.

With a little work, there will be a stronger emphasis on involving local communities in the preservation of their cultural heritage, recognising all our roles as custodians and beneficiaries.

To support this, the University of Adelaide has collaborated with Geoscience Australia to launch a suite of resources to guide homeowners and businesses in protecting their properties against earthquakes. These resources, which detail affordable and minimally disruptive retrofitting options, are available for free download here.

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