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Exploring the Differences between NBCC and ASCE 7 in Seismic Design

Earthquake-resistant design plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety and performance of buildings and structures. Two of the most prominent and widely adopted standards for seismic design are the National Building Code of Canada (NBCC) and the American Society of Civil Engineers' ASCE 7 Standard. This article aims to provide a thorough comparison of the differences between these two standards, focusing on their methodologies, provisions, design philosophies, and practical applications in seismic design.


The NBCC is a comprehensive building code that covers all aspects of building design and construction in Canada, including seismic design. It is the primary code used for seismic design in Canada and has been adopted by all provinces and territories. The ASCE7, on the other hand, is not a building code, but a standard that provides guidelines for minimum design loads for buildings and other structures. The code is widely used in the United States, but it does not cover all aspects of building design.

The NBCC and ASCE7 codes differ in their approach to seismic design criteria. The NBCC code provides specific seismic design criteria for different types of structures and seismic hazard zones. The criteria include requirements for seismic detailing, lateral force-resisting systems, and foundation design.

NBCC and ASCE 7 both use probabilistic seismic hazard assessment (PSHA) methodologies to define seismic hazard levels. However, differences in seismic source models, ground motion prediction equations (GMPEs), and site conditions may lead to variations in design ground motions. These distinctions can impact the final design of structures in certain locations, as each standard utilizes unique approaches to assess the seismic hazard, which can affect the structural response and design requirements.

The NBCC and ASCE7 differ in their approach to seismic hazard levels. The NBCC code divides Canada into five seismic hazard zones, based on the expected ground motion intensity at each location. Each zone has its own set of seismic design requirements, which are intended to ensure that structures are designed to withstand the expected levels of seismic activity. The ASCE7 code divides the United States into four seismic design categories, based on the expected seismic hazard at each location. The categories range from A to D, with A being the least hazardous and D being the most hazardous.

While both NBCC and ASCE 7 follow performance-based seismic design philosophies, the specific objectives and methods employed differ. The NBCC focuses on life safety and property protection through force-based design methods. In contrast, ASCE 7 provides more detailed performance objectives for various structures and occupancy categories and offers additional design methods, including displacement-based and capacity design approaches. These variations in design philosophies can lead to differences in the design process and structural performance expectations.

The NBCC primarily uses force-based design methods, which focus on ensuring that structures can withstand the expected seismic forces within acceptable performance limits. ASCE 7 offers a broader range of design methods, including force-based, displacement-based, and capacity design approaches. This flexibility allows engineers to select the most suitable method for their project, providing more options for tailoring the design approach to specific project requirements and site conditions.

Both NBCC and ASCE 7 classify sites based on soil properties. However, the classification systems and site coefficients used to adjust ground motion parameters differ between the two standards. These distinctions can lead to variations in the design response spectra and, consequently, the seismic demands placed on structures. Understanding these differences is crucial for engineers when selecting the appropriate site classification and soil factors for seismic design.

The NBCC uses a single set of performance criteria to achieve life safety and property protection goals. On the other hand, ASCE 7 defines different structural performance categories based on occupancy and structural importance, with varying design requirements. This difference in performance categories and design requirements can result in different levels of structural performance expectations and design conservatism.

The NBCC and ASCE7 codes also differ in their approach to structural systems. The NBCC code provides specific requirements for different types of structures, such as wood-frame, steel-frame, and concrete-frame buildings. These requirements are intended to ensure that each type of structure is designed to withstand the expected seismic activity. The ASCE7 code provides guidelines for all types of structures but does not provide specific requirements for each type of structure.

The NBCC and ASCE 7 both use design response spectra for seismic response analysis. However, the procedures for constructing these spectra differ between the two standards. The NBCC uses spectral acceleration at different periods, while ASCE 7 employs spectral response acceleration parameters (Ss and S1) for short and long periods. These differences in design spectra construction can impact the seismic demands on structures and influence the overall design process.

While both NBCC and ASCE 7 provide guidelines for selecting and designing seismic force resisting systems (SFRS), the available systems and their associated design requirements may differ. ASCE 7 typically offers a more extensive range of SFRS options and provides more detailed design requirements for these systems. Understanding the distinctions between the SFRS options and design requirements in each standard is crucial for selecting and designing appropriate systems for seismic resistance.

Both standards address the design of nonstructural components and systems to resist seismic forces. However, ASCE 7 generally provides more comprehensive and detailed provisions for designing and anchoring nonstructural elements. These differences can affect the design and performance of nonstructural components during an earthquake, impacting overall building safety and functionality.

The NBCC and ASCE7 codes differ in their approach to load combinations. The NBCC code provides specific load combinations for seismic design, which include dead load, live load, and seismic load. The ASCE7 code provides load combinations for all types of loads, including seismic loads. However, the ASCE7 code also allows the designer to select different load combinations based on their engineering judgment and the desired performance level of the structure.

NBCC: The NBCC primarily focuses on new construction and does not provide extensive guidance on seismic retrofit and rehabilitation of existing structures. Engineers must rely on other guidelines, such as the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) S832, for seismic retrofit and rehabilitation design.

ASCE 7: ASCE 7 addresses the seismic design of new structures, but it also provides some guidance on the retrofit and rehabilitation of existing structures. For more comprehensive retrofit and rehabilitation guidance, engineers can refer to the companion document ASCE 41, which specifically focuses on these aspects.

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