Mechanics of progressive collapse: Learning from World Trade Center and building demolitions

Zdenek P Bazant*, Mathieu Verdure

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

158 Scopus citations


Progressive collapse is a failure mode of great concern for tall buildings, and is also typical of building demolitions. The most infamous paradigm is the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. After reviewing the mechanics of their collapse, the motion during the crushing of one floor (or group of floors) and its energetics are analyzed, and a dynamic one-dimensional continuum model of progressive collapse is developed. Rather than using classical homogenization, it is found more effective to characterize the continuum by an energetically equivalent snap-through. The collapse, in which two phases-crush-down followed by crush-up-must be distinguished, is described in each phase by a nonlinear second-order differential equation for the propagation of the crushing front of a compacted block of accreting mass. Expressions for consistent energy potentials are formulated and an exact analytical solution of a special case is given. It is shown that progressive collapse will be triggered if the total (internal) energy loss during the crushing of one story (equal to the energy dissipated by the complete crushing and compaction of one story, minus the loss of gravity potential during the crushing of that story) exceeds the kinetic energy impacted to that story. Regardless of the load capacity of the columns, there is no way to deny the inevitability of progressive collapse driven by gravity alone if this criterion is satisfied (for the World Trade Center it is satisfied with an order-of-magnitude margin). The parameters are the compaction ratio of a crushed story, the fracture of mass ejected outside the tower perimeter, and the energy dissipation per unit height. The last is the most important, yet the hardest to predict theoretically. It is argued that, using inverse analysis, one could identify these parameters from a precise record of the motion of floors of a collapsing building. Due to a shroud of dust and smoke, the videos of the World Trade Center are only of limited use. It is proposed to obtain such records by monitoring (with millisecond accuracy) the precise time history of displacements in different modes of building demolitions. The monitoring could be accomplished by real-time telemetry from sacrificial accelerometers, or by high-speed optical camera. The resulting information on energy absorption capability would be valuable for the rating of various structural systems and for inferring their collapse mode under extreme fire, internal explosion, external blast, impact or other kinds of terrorist attack, as well as earthquake and foundation movements.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)308-319
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Engineering Mechanics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2007


  • Buildings, high-rise
  • Demolition
  • New York
  • Progressive collapse
  • Terrorism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Mechanical Engineering


Dive into the research topics of 'Mechanics of progressive collapse: Learning from World Trade Center and building demolitions'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this