A Future for the Past Notre Dame researchers help Italian church communities address seismic risks

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 – most of which are hundreds 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.”

David Pirchio assessing the vulnerability of a church in the region of Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy.

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.

To assess vulnerability, researchers evaluate architectural elements, like bell towers and arches, as well as the cultural and societal elements, such as art and how the church is currently used.

"It was important to create a measurement system that didn’t just take into account the vulnerability of the physical structure, because each church has a different societal value within its diocese," said Pirchio. "I wanted to ensure that we provided a holistic assessment that accounted for the cultural, historical, and economic significances of each church."

Overall, the seismic risk assessment methodology required an in-depth view of each church with the cooperation of local priests and communities, as well as the use of drones to capture high quality images of each structure.

In December of 2018, Pirchio went to Italy for an initial assessment of select Catholic churches. Funded through a Global Gateway Faculty Research Award to the Rome Global Gateway, he created and conducted three different surveys of churches: one for geometrics and vulnerabilities, another for material mechanics, and lastly one for data regarding the heritage presence, the average, and the maximum presence of churchgoers. All the collected data would then be used for the assessment, and result in an index for risk and prioritization.

Pictured from left to right are researchers who worked on this project in Italy: Ivan Giono (faculty member at University of Trento), undergraduate student researchers from Notre Dame (Elizabeth DePaola, Lily Polster, Marie Bond, and Patricia Dirlam), and project lead and Notre Dame graduate student David Pirchio. Not pictured is undergraduate Emily Brady, who also assisted with the work.

The initial trip served as a model for the following summer, when five undergraduate students from Notre Dame joined Pirchio, Associate Teaching Professor Elizabeth Kerr, and researchers from Italian universities to conduct assessments of 72 different churches. Supported by the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate, they traveled throughout the country and conducted research in six regions – Campania, Lazio, Trentino-Alto Adige, Toscana, Umbria, and Veneto, representing a total of nine different dioceses.

Each blue dot on the map represents a church researchers collected data from in Italy for the Seismic Risk Assessment.

“Initially, there were concerns about what these assessments would mean for the churches and dioceses that participated in a seismic risk assessment, but we assured them that our goal, beyond research, was to provide a real estate portfolio management-oriented service with a retrofit prioritization list,” said Walsh. "Once the dioceses saw the researchers and Notre Dame students working on the ground – and they realized the value we could provide – we were being asked to survey even more churches than originally planned."

In Italy, the research team collected immense amounts of data, from the year of a church’s original construction to material properties and photographic details. Initially, Pirchio led the students through the data collection. But by the end of the summer, he said the students were so invested in learning about the process, they were able to work by themselves and were even helping improve the methods of data collection.

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.

The beginning stage of developing three-dimensional renderings of a few of the churches assessed in Italy.

Beyond Italy, the Resiliency and Sustainability of Engineering Systems program hosts an experiential learning opportunity in New Zealand. Notre Dame undergraduate students can spend a summer carrying out field inspections of historical buildings, analyzing natural hazards risk for coastal communities, working in community health programs, studying environmental impacts from natural and man-made sources, and various other interdisciplinary projects in the fields of resiliency, sustainability, and asset management. Additionally, the program is looking to expand into Ireland for a historic restoration assessment of Kylemore Abbey, the Dublin Global Gateway’s O’Connell House, and the Newman Center for Faith and Reason.

Although these opportunities are significantly different than the project in Italy, Walsh says the holistic risk assessment model developed in Pirchio’s research that can be used in a number of different ways to help those wanting to better understand the risks of various assets and infrastructures. Pirchio agrees.

"Knowing they're at risk, people want to learn how to protect themselves and create resiliency in their communities. As engineers, we have the technical knowledge to help. At Notre Dame, our mission is to make that happen."


The University of Notre Dame is a private research and teaching university inspired by its Catholic mission. Located in South Bend, Indiana, its researchers are advancing human understanding through research, scholarship, education, and creative endeavor in order to be a repository for knowledge and a powerful means for doing good in the world. For more information, please see research.nd.edu or @UNDResearch.

Story by Brandi Wampler

Photos and Video Provided by David Pirchio