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Hurricane Preparedness Week: Spotlight on South Carolina Sea Grant funded Researcher Scott Schiff

Scott Schiff, Ph.D. Professor of Civil Engineering Clemson University

Scott Schiff, Ph.D. is a Professor of Civil Engineering at Clemson University. His areas of interest are: earthquake and wind engineering, wood engineering, low-rise building engineering, bridge engineering, and experimental investigation of structures.  South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium funded his research in 2014-2016 on wind and rain resistant design for coastal cross laminated timber buildings.


It’s Hurricane Preparedness Week, how does your research help people prepare for hurricanes?

Most wind research is aimed at long-term solutions to improve the built environment through the construction of new buildings and the retrofit of existing buildings. There are very few really effective actions to make a building more hurricane resistant that can be taken in the immediate window prior to landfall of a hurricane unless there are already planned actions such as the deployment of window/door protection and removal of debris from surrounding areas that could take flight during high winds. However, my research and research of others have helped to identify vulnerable buildings and architectural features so that either building owners work with design professionals and contractors to construct new buildings that are hurricane resistant or retrofit existing buildings to make them more hurricane resistant. In the absence of hurricane resistant buildings, occupants need to understand the important of taking refuge from the storm by retreating in-land away from the path of the hurricane or seeking shelter in structures designed to resist the effects of hurricanes.

What are some examples of the coastal hazards research you conduct?

Currently, with South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium funding, I am creating a method to determine the design wind loads for particular Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) structures. Using wind tunnel studies, my research team will determine how projected building features must be designed to withstand wind loads. We will incorporate results into methods to improve the suggested “best practices.” In addition to engineers and architects, this information will be beneficial to contractors and insurance organizations, and indirectly to building consumers.

I continue to work with researchers from the University of Florida and the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety to collect wind speed data and wind pressure data on prewired homes in South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida as hurricanes make landfall along the coasts of these states. The research is used to evaluate wind tunnel modeling, building code requirements and actual performance of existing buildings.

How did you come to work on coastal hazards research?

My dissertation research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign focused on the seismic performance of steel frame buildings. When I was hired at Clemson University, there was interest in developing expertise within South Carolina due to the greater emphasis of earthquake resistance design in our building codes. Shortly after my arrival, but likely no coincidence, at Clemson University, Hurricane Hugo made landfall in South Carolina and that greatly influenced the direction of my research. The devastation clearly provided evidence that there needed to be significant improvements to professional design practices, building codes and their enforcement, construction practices and even building maintenance. Much of my research and outreach efforts focused on development and adoption of wind resistant building construction, based on observed deficiencies and cost-effective solutions developed through the research at the Wind and Structural Engineering Research (WiSER) facility at Clemson University.

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In the field?

Most of my research is conducted in the lab, testing scale models, structural components or systems to either better understand the wind loading on buildings or the resistance of the structural system and building envelope to resist the wind loadings. However, fieldwork is also essential to gain ground truth especially in the aftermath of a wind disaster. It is critical that we understand why buildings failed and where to place greater emphasis in future research. While we attempt to create realistic tests in the lab, we understand the difficulty of dealing with small-scale specimens in the wind tunnel or sub-sections of actual buildings and not having the experiment influence the results. Testing and observations in the field, while difficult, provide considerable validation of experimental work and building code provisions.

What is the piece of technology or equipment you could not do without?

Depending upon the research being conducted, vastly different equipment is needed. However, most of my research requires reliable sensors and data acquisition equipment to measure and collect critical data. Over the past couple of decades, this equipment continues to be developed and refined, which requires life-long learning to get the best possible data to develop compelling solutions that will be adopted by the building industry. The ability to use computer graphics to visualize and animate data is an incredibly valuable tool to better understand and communicate research findings to both non-technical audiences.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

What I enjoy about my work is the ability to see the adoptions of my recommendations into practice. I have worked with a number of companies to develop impact resistant products such as windows, doors, shutters, structural wood sheathing and precast concrete wall panels to meet or exceed hurricane debris impact requirements. The goal of this research is to minimize the breaching of the building envelope to control the amount of additional damage due to internal pressurization and water intrusion of the building during a hurricane.

While it would be unrealistic to expect drastic changes in performance in a short period of time due to the considerable inventory of existing buildings, I do think that if Hurricane Hugo made landfall again in Charleston, South Carolina, there would be less of an impact and therefore faster recovery of the impacted community. There has been slow steady progress over the past 25 years. While I don’t wish any community to be impacted by a hurricane, these hurricanes provide tremendous opportunity to evaluate building construction changes and also provide necessary reminders to the construction industry to be vigilant in adopting better design and construction techniques and for building owners to demand hazard resistance construction.

What is the biggest challenge you face in communicating the importance of your research?

One of the biggest challenges is convincing people that improvements need to be made. Some have the mindset that they have never seen any hurricane damage and thus are convinced that they have built or live in hurricane resistant construction, but what they fail to realize is that they may have never been exposed to design level hurricane winds. (All hurricanes are not the same.) The difficulty is convincing a building owner to do anything more than the minimum with respect to constructing a hazard resistant structural system. Many times owners and developers would rather spend money on things that improve the aesthetics or functionality of the building – highly quality finishes, multimedia room, etc. While it is easier to understand their decision, I am not sure that they have carefully considered the consequences of their decision. Thankfully, building officials, mortgage lenders and insurance companies are beginning to help communicate the message and develop policies that encourage hazard resistant design.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?

In elementary school, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in building construction. Exactly what that meant or what I would do was unclear and certainly changed over the years. My education was broad enough to give me some flexibility to choose my career and it was only after I started my Master’s degree that I gave any thought to a career in academia. While I thoroughly enjoy my career and glad that I am in academia, I am still fascinated when I visit a large construction project and see a building or bridge under construction. I also marvel at older construction and I am amazed by their ability to build these buildings and bridges without the aid of state-of-the-art equipment and knowledge that has been gained in the past couple of decades.

What part of your job did you least expect to be doing?

I think one of the most challenging aspects of the job is the continual search for funding and all of the effort to track expenses. I suspect that most investigators conducting experimental research have a tough time clearly defining the scope and budget of a research project. It is extremely difficult to anticipate what will happen during the life of the project and to be able to react as needed. Obviously it is important to get as much data out of a research project, so that the sponsor believes the investment was worthwhile and to show future sponsors that you have a track record of doing productive research. Therefore I spend a significant amount of time monitoring and managing the research and acquiring follow-up research. So it becomes extremely important to surround yourself with a team of productive students who can get the research done with reasonable supervision.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

I think a person needs to be exposed to the breadth of possibilities and really figure out what career they feel passionate about. As our life expectancies increase, so will the time that we will be required to work also increase and it will become even more important to find self-satisfaction and enjoyment in your work. Today it is much easier to acquire current information via the web. There are many sites available that cater to technology and discuss both current and future technology issues. Clearly there are large-scale global issues that will need to be addressed by teams of talented experts representing many fields of study.

And how about a personal favorite book?

I not sure that I have a personal favorite book, but I do enjoy reading books like How Things Work and books about challenges in both the design and construction of famous, and not famous, structures. I still am puzzled by certain technologies outside of my expertise.

Do you have an outside hobby?

I enjoy the challenge of designing, building and fabricating things for my family and friends. I also enjoy participating in and watching sporting events with family and friends. Although I will have to admit that the participating has become more selective with age. I also enjoy outdoor activities such as boating on a lake, rafting down a river or hiking through the woods.

What surprised you most about Sea Grant?

South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium is somewhat of a unique Sea Grant in that they are interested in a broad range of coastal issues, including the built environment. I am fortunate to have been awarded several grants from the Consortium over my career at Clemson University. I also respect the value that they place on outreach, converting the research into practice and the resources that they can provide to make it happen. Research is only effective if others use and adopt the recommendations.




Meet other people in the Sea Grant Network that help communities prepare for severe coastal storms like hurricanes:

Hawaii Sea Grant Extension Agent Dennis Hwang
National Severe Storm Laboratory Sea Grant Extension Agent: Kodi Monroe
New York Sea Grant Communication Specialist: Paul Focazio
Maine Sea Grant Extension Agent: Kristen Grant
MIT Sea Grant funded researchers: Robert Beardsley and Changsheng Chen 
Texas Sea Grant Extension Agent: Heather Wade

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