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FAILURE OF STEEL-CONCRETE CONNECTIONS AT THE

KURSAAL AUDITORIUM

Miguel A. SERNA, Ph.D., Professor


Iigo PUENTE, Ph.D., Associate Professor
Luis CLEMOS, Graduate Research Assistant
Aitziber LOPEZ, Graduate Research Assistant
Department of Structural Engineering
University of Navarra, 20018 San Sebastin, Spain

Jos I. CANTONNET, Ph.D., PE


Department of Industrial Engineering
University of the Basque Country, 20018 San Sebastian, Spain

Abstract
On April 19, 1998, the staircase platforms and the stairs at the main entrance of the
KURSAAL Auditorium and Conference Centre (San Sebastian, Spain) collapsed. At the time the
Centre was under construction and the collapsed structure had been form stripped five days
before. Fortunately, the collapse took place on a Sunday and nobody was injured. The collapsed
structure consisted of two concrete platforms (40 cm thick and approximately 40 m long) and
two sets of stairs, rising to a total height of 9 metres. It was laterally connected at various points
to both the steel structure of the faade and the concrete wall of the auditorium, with the
appearance of an aerial structure. The initial design of the connections had been changed during
the construction process. After the investigation into the collapse, performed by the papers
authors, it was clear that the design of the new connections were not appropriate to support the
loads. The paper will describe the collapse, the connection designs, and the results of its analysis
based on the FEM.

Introduction
The KURSAAL Auditorium and Conference Centre (Photograph 1) is the creation of the
internationally celebrated Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, who is also currently in charge of the
design of the new Catholic Cathedral of Los Angeles. The Centre, which was ina ugurated in
June 1999, is the foremost example of modern architecture in the Basque Country capital of San
Sebastian in Spain. Conceived, in Moneos own words, as two giant beached cubes, the
Kursaal Centre consists of two cube like buildings, with free-standing glass faades supported on

their own independent steel structure. Inside the glass envelopes, two concrete auditoriums are
housed. The Kursaal Centre occupies an area of land of approximately 10,000 m2, whilst the
total floor area is over 60,000 m2. The steel structure used to support the glass facades weighs
2,200 tons. 48,000 m3 of concrete and 6,000 tons of reinforcing steel bars have been used. The
total construction cost has been 55 million Euros.

Photograph 1

The biggest cube measures 80x50 m in plan, and is approximately 30 m high. It contains the
main auditorium, which has a stage of 300 m2 , and is capable of hosting 1,800 people. The
structure of the auditorium is totally independent of the cubes faade. One of the main
architectural innovations is the disposition of staircase platforms and stairs that provide
communication between the entrance hall and the accesses to the auditorium. On Sunday, April
19, 1998, around 8 oclock, the total collapse of the platforms and stairs took place, the building
being under construction at the time. The formwork supporting the concrete during curing time
had been removed five days before. A few minutes before the failure, pedestrians and neighbours
of the building heard some bang- like sounds coming from the area where the staircase eventually
collapsed. Providentially, the collapse took place on a holiday. Therefore, no casualties or injures

were caused by the failure. The consequences among the workers, had the failure taken place
either before or after that Sunday, would have been dramatic.
This paper presents the main results of the investigation undertaken by the authors to
determine the cause of the failure. Firstly we describe the failure that took place. Next, the
anchoring design used to support the collapsed staircase to the steel structure is detailed. Finally,
the investigation results and conclusions are presented. Significantly, the failure was due to a
last minute change in the steel-concrete connection. Similar structural failures are described by
Feld and Carper., (1997) and Shepherd and Frost, (1995).

Failure Description
As indicated before, the structural failure affected the staircase inside the main cube. The
collapsed structure was composed of two platforms and two stair ramps, which communicated
levels +12.75 and +21.75, with a total elevation difference of 9m (Figure 1).

Platform

Stairs

Platform
Stairs

Anchors to steel
structure

Figure 1. Staircase

The Failure was complete. The two platforms and the two stair ramps totally collapsed and
fell onto the concrete surface at level +12,75 (Photograph 2). Both platforms and stair ramps
were found to be almost untouched, however (Photograph 3). Damage only affected the junction
between the ramps and horizontal platforms, and was due to the impact of the entire staircase
hitting the floor.
On the other hand, all the anchorage units used to support the platforms on the faades steel
structure were broken, with clear evidence of structural failure. In some cases it was observed
that steel bars embedded in the concrete platforms and welded to the steel plates were completely
separated from the plates, showing a weld failure. Moreover, most of the anchorage units
presented a similar pattern, with bars broken exactly on or near to bending zones (Photographs 4

and 5). Significantly, the fractured surface did not present necking and showed characteristics of
brittle fracture.

Photograph 2

Photograph 3

Photograph 4

Photograph 5

Anchoring Design
From a structural point of view, the stair ramps were intended to be supported by the 40cm
thick concrete platforms, with their loads being transferred to the adjoining steel structure of the
faade and the concrete wall of the auditorium. According to the drawings produced by the
structural engineering office that worked for the architect, the original design (in which the
platforms were anchored to the steel structure (Figure 2)) was based on embedding a steel profile
inside the concrete. At construction time that anchoring design was modified to simplify
construction procedures. Figure 3 shows the sketches made by the engineer in charge at the time
of construction. In essence the new anchor design consisted of two welded and stiffened steel
plates. One of these plates went into and was supported by one of the faades hollow
rectangular steel sections. The other steel plate was welded to a set of U-shaped steel bars, which
were located inside the concrete platform. Figure 4 shows a schematic view of the new design.

Steel Faade structure


Concrete platform
Connecting profile

Figure 2. Original design

Stiffeners

Figure 3. New design sketch

Steel plates

Welded steel bars

Figure 4. New design scheme

FEM Analysis
Following the site investigation of the collapsed structure and its anchoring system, a
structural analysis based on the Finite Element Method was performed. The FEM software used

for this analysis was COSMOS. The first step was to determine the reaction forces at the
supports due to dead loads. To this purpose the complete staircase was modelled using 3D, solid,
8 node elements. Once the reaction forces had been computed, the anchorage system was
considered. Assuming plane stress, the analysis used a reduced model based on 2D, 4 node plane
elements (Figure 6).

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7 presents the stress distribution results at the support. The analysis shows an
important stress concentration at the bending zone of the tensile bars. After the FE analysis it
was clear that the new design, based on U-shaped steel bars, was not appropriate. Moreover, the
bending of the bars was performed using a minimum diameter lower than that allowed by the
Standards. This is particularly significant when, as in this case, the steel has a yield stress higher
than 500 MPa. As is well known, a bending process creates residual stresses and, in many cases,
fissures and cracks. This results in a three-dimensional stress state, with weakened zones.
Additionally, the welding of the bars to the plate in the proximity of the bending zones creates
residual stresses of thermal origin. All this leads to a situation where brittle fractures easily
appear, as has been demonstrated.

Steel plate

Concrete platform

Steel bars

Stress concentraction

Figure 7. Stress distribution

Conclusions
The investigation, performed to determine the main cause of the Kursaal staircase collapse,
has reached the conclusion that the collapse was due to a lack of strength in the anchoring
system. The steel bars embedded in the concrete platforms were unable to resist the forces they
intended to transfer to the steel plates.
The FE analysis has shown that there was a concentration of stress in the bending zone of the
bars, where residual stresses due to bending and welding processes had previously created a
weakening of the steel. The stress concentration was mainly due to the fact that the tensile forces
in the bars needed to change direction in order to be transferred to the plate. Had the designer
used two bars directly welded to the plate instead of U-shaped bars no concentration would have
taken place.
The new and working anchoring design is now based on a simple support of the platform on
a steel haunch welded to the faades steel structure (Photographs 6 and 7). Once again
connections, particularly steel-concrete connections, and improvisation have been shown to be
the cause of inappropriate design.

Photograph 6

Photograph 7

References
Feld, J. and Carper, K.L., 1997, Construction Failure (2nd edition), John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,
p.205-227.
Shepherd, R. and Frost, J.D., 1995, Failures in Civil Engineering: Structural, Foundation and
Geoenvironmental Case Studies, American Society of Civil Engineers, p. 73-76.