In October of 2016, central Italy was left devastated by a major earthquake, destroying homes and entire villages. Given Italy is prone to seismic activity, determining how to prioritize the protection of buildings – some of which are thousands of years old – can be complicated.
David Pirchio was graduating with his master’s degree in architectural engineering from the University of Trento in Italy when he developed an interest in the effect that earthquakes have on Catholic churches and communities. Understanding this challenge in his home country, David hoped research could help dioceses prioritize which buildings should be addressed first for mitigation.
“My professor at the University of Trento knew Professor Kevin Walsh and connected us,” said Pirchio. “It was a perfect fit for me. Known for its Catholic character, the University of Notre Dame was ideal for pursuing my master’s degree in civil engineering and applying my experience towards this real-world issue at home.”
Under the direction of Walsh, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences (CEEES) and Director of Resiliency and Sustainability of Engineering Systems at Notre Dame, Pirchio began developing a seismic risk assessment methodology for churches that could be applied rapidly across a nationwide portfolio. The goal of the assessment would be to help determine what preventative measures or repairs are needed for a particular building.
The method Pirchio devised was unique – not only would he consider architectural and structural vulnerability, but also community exposure and cultural and economic consequences. Vulnerability requires a comprehensive evaluation of the entire structure, from the façade to walls as well as the arches and bell towers. The exposure and consequences portions include an evaluation of the importance of the church, including the number of regular visitors or users of the church, the heritage impact, economic impact, and the timeframe it would take to make repairs.
Sant'Antonio Catholic church in the village of Filletino in the region of Lazio, Italy.
Santissima Annunziata Catholic church in the Campania region of Italy.
Bell tower at Sainti Leonardo e Cassiano Catholic church in the region of Toscana, Italy.
Sant'Antonio Catholic church in the Campania region of Italy.
Santa Maria e Santa Fosca Catholic church in Dueville in the region of Veneto, Italy.
For Patricia Dirlam, one of the undergraduate students who spent the summer working on this research, it reinvigorated her interest in the field of civil engineering. Walsh encouraged her to join the trip. He hoped it would convince Dirlam to continue pursuing her double major in economics and in the CEEES program, and that it would show some of the impact she could have applying both skill sets to help solve challenges on a community scale.
“My time in Italy helped reestablish civil engineering as a human-oriented field by introducing me to people my degree will empower me to help,” said Dirlam. “By measuring the impact of my work in terms of lives saved – in this case from seismic catastrophes – I feel confident in what I could achieve with a degree from Notre Dame.”
The surveys and photos collected by Notre Dame researchers are being used to construct three-dimensional digital models of the churches for further evaluation. This data is vital for developing the risk index for each church. Index results will be shared with the dioceses to help them determine how to prioritize the allocation of financial resources for the protection of churches against earthquakes and other seismic activities.