Juan Carlos de la Llera was sleeping soundly with his wife in the early morning of Feb. 27, 2010, when the earth off the coast of central Chile convulsed in the sixth-largest quake ever recorded. As the temblor broke windows and tossed books and dishes from the shelves, he, his wife and their 14-year-old daughter sheltered in a fortified area that de la Llera, a civil engineer, had built in the center of their two-story home outside Santiago. The quake lasted almost two minutes. De la Llera, safe with his family, feared the worst for Chile’s capital. “I thought the whole city was down,” he says.
The 8.8-magnitude quake left more than 520 people dead and wrought $30 billion in damages, equal to 17 percent of Chile’s gross national product. Later that morning, de la Llera, president and co-founder of engineering company Sirve, drove to Santiago to see if the quake-resistant technology his company designed had saved what was then the city’s tallest skyscraper, the 52-story, $200 million Torre Titanium La Portada office building. Although the tower had swayed three feet from side to side, it suffered no structural damage other than a balcony that had separated — but not fallen — from the building.
The quake was a milestone for Sirve. The Titanium Tower, completed last January, was the Santiago-based company’s grandest project. To help win the contract, Sirve did the work for $500,000 — roughly cost — in order to use the building as a showcase for its technology, de la Llera says. The company’s reputation from the Titanium Tower has helped Sirve, which was founded in 2003, win contracts to protect apartments and other structures. The 50-employee company expects revenue of $6 million in 2011, a 50 percent increase over 2010, and revenue of $8 million next year.
Sirve’s shock-absorbing steel dampers were built into every third floor on two sides of the oblong Titanium Tower. The X-shaped, story-high devices twisted in every direction with the quake, absorbing roughly 40 percent of the earth’s movement before returning to their original shape. Joseph Colaco, president of Houston-based CBM Engineers, was the structural engineer on the Titanium Tower project who helped the owners select Sirve’s technology. “It really paid off in spades,” Colaco says of choosing Sirve. “From what I understand, the building was occupied the very next day.”
Technology such as Sirve’s does more than prevent a building from collapsing. By diminishing the shaking, the devices greatly reduce interior damage. As a result, government facilities, hospitals, manufacturing plants and office buildings can continue to be used after an earthquake. “You don’t want a whole bunch of buildings and the whole community closed down, because then it shuts down the economy,” says Michael Cochran, a spokesman and former president of the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California, which sent representatives to Chile after the quake.