Ignore Seismic Requirements When Wind Controls?

Prior to joining Simpson Strong-Tie, my career involved the design of projects in California’s San Francisco Bay Area. When designing the primary lateral force resisting system, I would have several pages of seismic base shear calculations and, oh yeah, a one- or two-line calculation of the wind forces – just to show that seismic governed. There was no need for complete wind analysis, since the seismic design and detailing requirements were more restrictive. Of course, building components such as parapets, cladding or roof screens needed a wind design. Unfortunately, when wind appears to control, meeting the seismic requirements is not so simple.

The building code requires that every structure be designed and constructed to resist the effects of earthquake motions. The 2006 & 2009 International Building Code, Section 1604.10 states that:

Lateral-force-resisting systems shall meet seismic detailing requirements and limitations prescribed in this code and ASCE 7, excluding Chapter 14 and Appendix 11A, even when the wind load effects are greater than seismic load effects. 

Often, these seismic detailing requirements and limitations get lost in the shuffle of building design when it appears that wind controls.

Wind vs. Seismic

Calculated wind pressures on a structure produce actual loads the building is expected to experience during a wind event. A good structural system for wind design is typically a strong, heavy system with robust connections to help resist loads as the wind blows across and over the structure.

In seismic conditions, however, it’s expected that buildings will undergo cyclic loading as the ground moves back and forth and the building’s inertia catches up with the ground movement. So the building is designed to absorb and then dissipate seismic energy through damping and yielding of the lateral systems.

This concept requires a good understanding of the ductility in the lateral system and controlling the amount of deflection the system will undergo during this loading condition. Going a step further, the seismic loads on a building are not the actual loads a building will experience during a seismic event. The ability of the system to undergo inelastic displacements and retain structural integrity – or ductility – is utilized more than the strength characteristics.

Currently, the code-calculated seismic forces on a structure are based on 2/3 of the actual expected ground accelerations. The seismic load is further reduced based on the ductility of the lateral-resisting system chosen. Many lateral-resisting systems, such as light-frame wood shear walls, have a ductility variable assigned and tabulated in the ASCE7 reference standard.

When comparing wind and seismic lateral loads on a structure, it may appear that the wind load will control over the seismic load. However, if the ductility of the lateral-resisting system is less than the initial value used to calculate the seismic force (perhaps due to poor detailing or limitations), the seismic load may actually control. This may not be obvious unless a full wind and seismic analysis is performed.


Assume that the simple structure below has a calculated lateral load (in-plane) on the wall of 1500 lbs. due to wind, and 1000 lbs. due to seismic. You may quickly dismiss the seismic load and base the rest of your design on the wind load. Makes sense because it’s 50% higher, right?

But when you analyze and apply the detailing and seismic limitations to the design, you reach a much different conclusion. The height-to-width ratio of wood light-frame shear walls shown in this structure is 3.5:1 (7ft/2ft), which is acceptable for wind conditions. For seismic loads, a ratio of 2:1 is required for full shear wall capacity per the Special Design Provisions for Wind and Seismic. The SDPWS does allow the height-to-width ratio of the shear walls to be increased to 3.5:1 for seismic conditions provided shear capacity of the wall is multiplied by 2W/H. Applying this limitation to demand load yields an adjustment to the seismic force of 1.75 [shear wall height / 2x shear wall width = 7 ft / (2×2 ft) = (7ft /4ft) = 1.75], and the adjusted seismic force is now 1750 lbs. compared to the 1500 lbs. force due to wind.

There are many seismic details and limitations just like this one that may affect the outcome of the structural design, including connections, drag struts, anchorage to concrete and framing designs. We can’t simply compare a wind and seismic base shear to make a decision about which load controls. Depending on the shape of the building, wind may control in one direction while seismic controls another.

It is essential to be compliant in all seismic detailing and limitations to ensure the safety and welfare of the building occupants. Often, the only way to do this is to design the structure completely for each load effect and apply the appropriate design for each application.

– Paul

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Paul McEntee

Author: Paul McEntee

A couple of years back we hosted a “Take your daughter or son to work day,” which was a great opportunity for our children to find out what their parents did. We had different activities for the kids to learn about careers and the importance of education in opening up career opportunities. People often ask me what I do for Simpson Strong-Tie and I sometimes laugh about how my son Ryan responded to a questionnaire he filled out that day:

Q.   What is your mom/dad's job?
A.   Goes and gets coffee and sits at his desk

Q.   What does your mom/dad actually do at work?
A.   Walks in the test lab and checks things

When I am not checking things in the lab or sitting at my desk drinking coffee, I manage Engineering Research and Development for Simpson Strong-Tie, focusing on new product development for connectors and lateral systems.

I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and I am a licensed Civil and Structural Engineer in California. Prior to joining Simpson Strong-Tie, I worked for 10 years as a consulting structural engineer designing commercial, industrial, multi-family, mixed-use and retail projects. I was fortunate in those years to work at a great engineering firm that did a lot of everything. This allowed me to gain experience designing with wood, structural steel, concrete, concrete block and cold-formed steel as well as working on many seismic retrofits of historic unreinforced masonry buildings.

8 thoughts on “Ignore Seismic Requirements When Wind Controls?”

  1. It seems reasonable that at least for the residential code and the simplified ASCE7 seismic methods there could be a wind load threshold one could calculate which would negate many of the seismic detailing requirements for high wind/lower seismic areas.  Part of the problem would depend on the R factor of the lateral seismic system, and therefore limitations on the types of systems would be needed.

  2. Unless I am grossly unaware, it seems that designing the structure with the wind base load as if it were a seismic load will resolve that problem and make doing two analysis unwarranted.  With clients going for the cheapest engineer regardless of work quality, who has time or the fee to do two analysis?

    1. I think this does resolve the problem, but without having run through a complete design of a real building, it’s hard to say what effects this approach would have on relative construction costs. Some clients only want the cheapest engineering fee they can get, but engineering fees are small compared to construction costs. An overly conservative design that increases construction costs won’t help return business.

  3. Hello everyone, Ive recently picked up my first desk job and for the most part all Im asked to do is seismic and wind shear forces. Does anyone have an easy method for doing so. Im working on my aero engineering degree and most of this is foreign to me. 

  4. Hi Paul–I just came here from your seismic discussion and wanted to point out that the ASCE 7-05, Section 11.1.2, lists some exceptions of structures where seismic requirements need not be checked at all.  This applies for dwellings when Ss is less than 0.4 or where SDC A, B, or C. There are other structures as well–IRC Conventional Construction, Ag storage (Barns), and “special” structures.

  5. greetings!

    am very new to this concepts and analysis….
    just something i want to understand…
    its written “2w/h” and in the calculation its done as “h/2w (i.e. 7ft / 2 x 2ft = 7/4 = 1.75)”… which one is the correct one?

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