Responsible design prioritises safety while maximising sustainability and social impact

Newsroom 18/08/2023 | 15:56

Allied Engineers is one of the most important general design companies in Romania. With 20 years of activity in the construction market, the company works on complex projects in the most diverse fields, in both the private and public sectors: from office and residential projects to public buildings, industrial objectives, and commercial and logistics spaces. BR sat down with Mihai Dragomir, managing partner at Allied Engineers, and had an in-depth discussion about how secure buildings are in Bucharest, what companies should do, seismic design, and many more topics.

By Romanita Oprea



What’s your view of Romania’s seismic design in 2023?

Since Romania is located in a seismically active region known as the Vrancea seismic zone, it is important for the country to have robust seismic design standards and practices. Seismic design in Romania is governed by a very modern set of codes that are aligned with the international engineering practice. These codes provide rules and guidelines for designing structures to withstand seismic forces, as well as requirements for proper construction practices and the seismic monitoring of buildings.

After the last major earthquake, the devastating event of 1977 that led to the collapse of over 30 buildings and around 1,500 fatalities in Bucharest alone, Romania made significant efforts to enhance its seismic design practices for new constructions and retrofit existing buildings. These codes have been continuously revised and updated over the years in order to reflect advancements in seismic engineering and lessons learned from past earthquakes, both local and global. These are stateoftheart codes that ensure a proper seismic structural performance for new buildings.

What should change at this point? What should companies or state representatives do?

It is important to note that building structural performance depends not only on the design standards, but also on factors such as adherence to regulations during construction, quality control measures, construction monitoring or the tracking of the building’s behaviour over time. 

Construction monitoringincluding the seismic instrumentation of buildingsis an activity with a low level of regulation and, consequently, a low level of implementation. The structural health of a building can be observed through monitoring after construction is completed: early warning systems are put in place and measures can be taken proactively, thus preventing potential disasters. A relevant example is the recent collapse of the Neamt County bridge, which could have been avoided had monitoring been employed. The early signs of progressive degradation were there; unfortunately, there was nobody to track them down, process them, and take action. The good news is that the most recent codes have begun to normalise this essential component in maintaining the performance of a construction. 

In my opinion, the public focus should be on having more and more new, modern, and structurally sound buildings, especially in the residential segment, and to move the occupants of older, seismically vulnerable buildings to safety. For this to happen, public authorities can do a lot to help, mainly by simplifying permitting procedures and providing a friendlier taxation in the real estate field. In this respect, it is obvious that the threshold to which the reduced VAT rate of 5 percent is applied is unrealistically low. For example, today in Bucharest a twobedroom apartment in a new building exceeds the 120,000 euro threshold, therefore a consistent 19% VAT is added to the price tag. Unfortunately, this affects mainly the users of these types of apartments, which are families with children. It should be a public top priority to ensure the safety of this segment of our population.  

How secure are Bucharest’s buildings, especially the new ones? 

Older, non-retrofitted buildings that were built before 1977 are generally considered more seismically vulnerable. These structures were designed and built without the aid of the modern seismic standards and codes. An old, vulnerable building can have its structure strengthened by retrofitting to improve its seismic and structural performance. While central and local authorities have been promoting seismic assessment and retrofitting programmes, there are still numerous buildings in Bucharest that are classified as vulnerable to earthquakes and are not even included in retrofitting plans

New buildings are expected to follow current seismic design standards and incorporate modern construction techniques and materials that improve their structural performance. In line with the current seismic design code, new buildings are designed to ensure the safety of their occupants and maintain structural integrity under a seismic design action, which corresponds to a severe earthquakeconsiderably stronger than the 1977 one, for reference. 

After a moderate earthquake, a new building should ensure immediate re-occupancy. For example, if a building that was designed and executed based on the existing codes were subjected to the 1977 earthquake, there should be no reduction in its structural performance. It may only suffer minor degradations to non-structural elements, those not related to the load bearing structure, such as false ceilings, partition walls, etc. This would make re-occupancy possible immediately after the seismic event. 

What are some myths regarding the safety of buildings and how would you debunk them?

One of the biggest myths is that an older building that has survived past earthquakes without collapsing has proven itself to be strong enough to also resist future earthquakes. Sadly, the saying what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger doesn’t apply in this case. A strong ground shaking would most likely degrade the structural integrity of a vulnerable building, reducing its strength and stiffness, thus leaving it more vulnerable. 

It is recommended that old buildings, especially the ones that have experienced major earthquakes, be seismically assessed in order to determine their actual seismic risk and the necessary measures for lowering that risk.

What is the situation like in other cities? Where do you see the biggest perils and why?

There are many other cities and regions in the country that also have varying levels of seismic vulnerability. Focsani, Braila, Galati, Ploiesti all face high risk due to their proximity to the Vranceaseismic zone, which is well known for its significant seismic activity. 

To my knowledge, considerable efforts have been made to retrofit some of the older, vulnerable buildings. Still, retrofitting is a very slow and expensive process that usually requires occupants to leave their homes for a long period of time. For these reasons, many vulnerable buildings have still not been retrofitted.  

On the other hand, new, modern, energy efficient, and structurally safe residential and administrative buildings have been erected in recent years all across Romania. The main public focus should be to relocate people from the old vulnerable dwellings to these modern, safe buildings and stimulate the construction of better performing buildings.

What actions and measures are you taking regarding this matter?

In our design office, we continuously improve our design procedures. We have also aligned our work long ago with the most modern engineering practices and we have implemented the most advanced engineering technologies in our design process. For high rise towers, we have always performed advanced structural analysis methods, such as the Nonlinear Time History Analysis. Through this method, the structural model is subjected to input corresponding to real earthquake ground accelerations, and its response is simulated over a certain period of time. This captures the structures non-linear characteristics, allowing for a thorough understanding of how forces and deformations are distributed within the structure. 

Another cuttingedge design technology that we have implemented as a complex design method is called BIM 3D, which stands for Building Information Modelling in 3D. Basically, it enables the digital representation of a project for all design specialties, architecture, structure, installations, infrastructure in the same 3D virtual environment and allows for a superior design coordination, enhances collaboration, improves decision-making, reduces errors and conflicts, and increases overall project efficiency.

What does responsible design mean for you?

Responsible design prioritises life safety while maximising sustainability, while showing consideration for social impact, adhering to the relevant codes and standards, integrating cost-efficient practices and addressing the needs of building occupants, and last but not least, the interest of investors. 

What has changed since the 1977 earthquake in terms of how we build in Romania?

First, seismic design codes have been evolving continuously, nowadays reaching a very high level of confidence in ensuring structurally sound buildings. 

New construction materials have been developed, and they have considerably higher strength and generally improved performance parameters. The concrete and reinforcement steel we use today are at least 2-3 times stronger than the materials that were used in buildings erected 50 years ago. What’s more, new design and construction technologies have been developed continuously over the past few decades. For example, all our projects use the world’s most advanced software tools for structural analysis and earthquake design, developed in Berkeley, California.

Quality control during the execution process is also significantly better today.

Your business has grown over the last few years and you’ve decided to expand to new areas such as residential, industrial investment, logistics-commercial. What led you to choose those areas and what are your goals and expectations for 2023-2024?

Keeping our eyes open for opportunities and the early adoption of revolutionary technology have shaped our growth so far. Simply put, we observed the needs of the market and we tried to use our experience or build the necessary capabilities to cover projects in those areas. 

The use of technology—specifically BIM 3D—was crucial: it allowed us to successfully complete the first projects we worked on at Allied Engineers, which were very complex industrial projects. In the following years, we managed to build a very diverse and strong portfolio by focusing on creating and maintaining a strong team, with a wide range of capabilities. We currently have a mature team of over 70 specialists, engineers, and architects, and we are looking to enlarge it even further with young talents.  

After the 30 percent growth of our business in 2022, we expect a similar performance in the coming years. We are looking to further strengthen our position on the domestic design market and expand design activity outside the country. We are looking forward to reaching a point where we have at least as many projects abroad as we do in Romania. 

Why do you believe 2022 has been your best year so far? What was the key to your success?

We always try to diversify our portfolio with projects in areas with good growth prospects, while keeping ourselves active in areas where we’ve already accumulated a lot of experience. That was our strategy in 2022 as well. We managed to strengthen our position in fields such as industrial, commercial-logistics, and residential investments. We also accessed public projects, such as future hospitals. And as the energy crisis brought a growing focus on the renewable energy sector, we used our 10 years of experience in this field to work on significant photovoltaic and wind farm projects.

Our team, combining experience and enthusiasm, has always been the key to our success. We’ve managed to create a functional ecosystem with people who have the suitable drive and energy for this job and who bring these valuable qualities into the projects in which they get involved.

What are the projects that you are most proud of and why?

I would mention the projects that include high rise towers. Some examples would be One Floreasca City, Globalworth Tower, One High District, The Mark, Expo Business Park, AFI Tech Park or One Lake Club. These are smartly designed projects of high complexity, mainly due to the building height correlated with the high seismicity location.

What does it mean to you to have been an entrepreneur in Romania for 20 years now?

At the beginning of this journey, in 2003, it was difficult to imagine the size and impact that our business would have today. I started with small steps and achievable goals, in a country that, at that point in time, was just recovering economically after a grim decade. 

Back then, my aim was to bring together a team that would be able to work on more and more complex projects in our initial specialty, which was designing resistance structures. We learned how to adapt and focus on the right niches in an everchanging economy. Today we have the capacity to provide general design services in increasingly diversified fields, such as administrative, industrial, retail, logistics or energy. We are now an important player on the Romanian general design market and I am definitely very proud to have achieved that, along with my team

What have been the biggest challenges so far and how have you overcome them?

Over the last 20 years, we’ve gone through different types of crises. The first major one was the financial crisis of 2008-2009, when we had the chance to be involved in real estate projects which,unlike many others at that time, were actually completed. In fact, we had an increase in turnover during the crisis. In the following years we focused on renewable energy projects, a consistently growing niche. We accessed some important projects in the wind and photovoltaic parks industry and that kept us going. When the economy recovered, we turned to other sectors as well. 

The use of advanced technology was a major source of support throughout our history. We are among the pioneers of using BIM 3D in integrated design. This has proven to be a long-term competitive advantage, as it has helped us work faster and with more precision.

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