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The 'Three Ps' of Engineering 


“We believe that we should use seismic details throughout New Zealand just in case you get an earthquake where you didn’t expect one or an earthquake larger than what is currently expected.”


These words from Professor Tom Paulay in 2003 have an eerie echo, as Canterbury looks to move forward after what happened in the region in September 2010.


Professor Paulay (1923-2009) was one member of the ‘Three Ps’, as they were collectively known by the worldwide earthquake engineering community, the other two being Professor Bob Park (1933-2004) and Professor Nigel Priestley (1943-2014).


All three professors were educated (at least in part) and taught at the University of Canterbury in the Civil Engineering department. Each is known individually for their sizeable and significant contribution to the fields of structural and earthquake engineering over the latter half of the twentieth century.


Professor Paulay was a Hungarian-born engineer who had a major influence on approaches to the design of the reinforced concrete buildings for earthquake actions. He is best known for his development of the concept of capacity design, which forms the basis of seismic design in many countries.


Professor Park contributed significantly to areas of reinforced, pre-stressed and precast concrete buildings and bridges. His administrative and leadership skills meant that Professor Park developed and influenced design codes for countries all over the world.


Professor Priestley was originally a student of Professor Paulay’s in 1962, and co-authored Seismic Design of Reinforced Concrete and Masonry Buildings with him in 1992. The full scope of Professor Priestley’s work included using the ‘full metal jacket’ to retrofit concrete bridge columns, his displacement-based method of seismic design, and PRESSS (precast seismic structural systems).


The foresight and caution of Professors Paulay, Park and Priestley was undoubtedly part of the reason Canterbury wasn’t as badly damaged as it could have been by the estimated 15,000 earthquakes and aftershocks the region saw since 2010. Regularly referred to as “the godfathers of the engineering world”, between the three scholars they hold two OBEs and an ONZM, countless overseas awards and over the years published more than one thousand academic papers.


As well as being respected scholars and sought-after lecturers around the world, the Three Ps were great friends. Nigel writes, “Tom, Bob and myself are separated in age by almost exact multiples of ten years (e.g. 80, 70, 60), give or take a few months, and we developed a habit of celebrating our cumulative age (e.g. 204) when possible, by a dinner with our wives.”


When Professors Paulay and Park were honoured with a symposium in 2003 celebrating their lifetime contributions to earthquake engineering all over the world, both were disappointed that Professor Priestley was not included. Professor Paulay said in his speech at the event that “[Nigel’s] research output surpassed the combined efforts of the two older P’s”.


For a University to produce one distinguished and internationally recognised Professor is common; to have three in the same department is absolutely remarkable. The contribution that the Three P’s had in earthquake engineering will never be overstated, and their legacy, research and foresight in structural design in seismic areas has saved, and will continue to save many lives.













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