Home Science Wobbly skyscrapers may trigger motion-sickness and depression, warn experts

Wobbly skyscrapers may trigger motion-sickness and depression, warn experts

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Wobbly skyscrapers may trigger motion-sickness and depression, warn experts

If working in an office high-rise makes you tired and grumpy, it may not just be your job that’s to blame.

Skyscrapers may trigger motion-sickness, sleepiness and depression because they sway slightly in the wind, experts believe, and are launching a £7 million study to gauge the impact and work out how to prevent it.

Experts are concerned that the movements of very tall buildings and wobbly bridges are having a damaging effect on health.

Although they appear rigid in appearance, skyscrapers shift slightly in response to external forces, such as nearby building work or trains rumbling past, while strong winds can make them vibrate or sway at low frequencies.

Since the 1970s, floor slabs have become thinner and lighter and column spacing has increased, meaning that newer buildings often do not dampen vibrations as well as older ones.

Now a team of engineers, medics, physiologists and psychologists from the Universities of Exeter and Bath will explore claims that people experience motion sickness, fatigue, depression, poor concentration and lack of motivation if they live or work in a building that sways slightly.


Wobbly skyscrapers may trigger motion-sickness and depression, warn experts

Testing simulators will be built in Exeter and Bath to measure movement from very tall buildings, offices and flats, football stadiums and rock concert venues, including the impact of vibrations caused by crowds simultaneously exiting a stadium or walking across bridges.


Wobbly skyscrapers may trigger motion-sickness and depression, warn experts

Alex Pavic, Professor of Vibration Engineering at the University of Exeter, who was an expert adviser on the ‘wobbly’ Millennium Bridge in London, said: “More and more people are living and working in high-rises and office blocks, but the true impact of vibrations on them is currently very poorly understood.

“It can differ depending on whether an environment is quiet or noisy, the time of the day and even whether people are moving, standing, running or walking.

“Humans spend 90 per cent of their lives in buildings which vibrate non-stop, but there is still very little reliable information about the effect of structural vibration.

“It will for the first time link structural motion, environmental conditions and human body motion, psychology and physiology in a fully controllable virtual environment.”

Previous studies have already shown that very subtle building motion can be perceived by some occupants, sometimes inducing motion sickness, sleepiness  and causing fear. The phenomenon is sometimes dubbed ‘Sick Building Syndrome’, although until now experts have struggled to find the origin of the problems.

Scientists believe that evolution has made humans adept at picking up tiny vibrations. For our primate ancestors, the slight movement of trees could have signalled the approach of a predator.


Wobbly skyscrapers may trigger motion-sickness and depression, warn experts

Dr Antony Darby, Head of Civil Engineering at the University of Bath, said: “Just like sea sickness, our propensity to motion-induced discomfort is situation and environment dependent.

“For example, people at a concert in a grandstand will accept a completely different level of vibration than those in a hospital operating theatre.

“We now have the ability to simulate not only the structural motion, but the surroundings, temperature, noise, air quality, even smell, all of which contribute to our experience of, and tolerance to, building motion.”

The facility has the backing of the building and design industry, which plans to use the findings to improve structural design.


Wobbly skyscrapers may trigger motion-sickness and depression, warn experts

Chris Pembridge, director of WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, a construction engineering company, said: “We believe that working with the research team will make a real difference to structural design where ground vibration and building movement are key challenges, such as sites adjacent to vibration-inducing infrastructure and in tall building design.”

Prof Kenny Kwok of the University of Western Sydney, Australia, a world authority on the impact of tall-building vibrations, said the new test site could help establish standards for the levels of building motion that are acceptable.

“Our recent field studies have shown that wind-induced building motion can cause sopite syndrome (a motion-related neurological disorder) or early onset motion sickness.

“This new facility will be utilised to advance our understanding of the prevalence of sopite syndrome and its adverse effects on building occupants, and guide the formulation of acceptability criteria for building motion to address its adverse effects on occupant wellbeing and work performance.”

The project is funded by Exeter and Bath universities and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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