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New Zealand civil engineer Nigel Priestley was among the outstanding seismic constructors of his era.
Professor Priestley who has died at the age of 71 was co- founder of the Rose School for graduate earthquake engineers in Pavia, Italy. The school became notable for its allocation under Professor Priestley of the major European prize in the field of earthquake engineering.
In recent years he came to the notice of the general public in his native land for his work with the group set up to study the failure of major buildings in the Canterbury earthquakes.
He was on familiar territory. It was at the University of Canterbury that he acquired his PhD He then worked as a research engineer at the Ministry of Works which in those days designed, controlled, and implemented public works. Another stint in academia followed and it was now that he began to focus on earthquake engineering In 1987 he took up a professorial position at the University of California in San Diego.
He was by now considered by many to be the leading authority in the field on areas such as masonry and reinforced concrete structural behaviour, the design of concrete bridges and displacement based design.
He was for a decade the United States coordinator of a joint US/Japanese research programme on seismic design of precast structures. He was a participant in earthquake aftermath investigations in Chile, Costa Rica, and Japan. He was routinely the consultant structural engineer for bridges, wharfs, viaducts and elevated motorways in zones everywhere in which seismic activity was a threat.
In the professional sphere he will be remembered especially for directing research into a damage resistant design system based around concrete structural elements. Referred to as PRESSS, this seismic design solution was developed at the University of California in San Diego during the 1990s under his leadership.
Central to PRESSS is its use of un-bonded post tensioning cables within a precast wall, beam and column structure. These along with specially designed ductile joints, allow for a controlled rocking mechanism that returns the building to upright without significant structural damage.
Nigel Priestley's work with Rose School was a happy extension of the deployment in New Zealand in the middle of the last century of Italian engineering manpower. Italy was then viewed as the world's greatest repository of expertise in seismic engineering.
The first phase was when the country's initial geothermal power station at Wairakei was implemented. The second was the Tongariro hydro electric power project on the volcanic plateau centred on the power station at Tokaanu.
This era is now very largely remembered only for the 400 staff members of the main contractor Codelfa Cogefar remaining in New Zealand to marry their New Zealand wives.