Designing for natural disasters

A striking difference between the industrialized nations and the third world nations is clear during the aftermath of a natural disaster. The latest example of this disparity is seen in Haiti after the earthquake in January.

Rarely is anyone killed in a chasm in the surface of the earth, swallowing everything in sight. (An example of this can be seen in the movie 2012.) Most deaths that occur during an earthquake (I believe I read it was approximately 80% of deaths) is attributed to the collapse of a building. The structure that provides people protection from the elements proves to be the reason for their demise during an earthquake (as well as during tornadoes and hurricanes).

The aforementioned disparity in regards to the quality of construction usually comes down to two factors: access to quality building materials and supplies, and the establishment and enforcement of relevant building codes. The situation in Haiti is a prime example of these two factors failing gloriously.

Haiti is considered the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. (The one statistic that encapsulates this point to me is the average life expectancy in Haiti. In most nations – industrialized and Caribbean resort nations – the life expectancy is typically in the mid to upper 70s. The average life expectancy in Haiti is in the upper 40s.) A good portion of the homes in Haiti are built of concrete. Strong concrete consists of the proper balance of aggregate (rock, sand, gravel), water, and cement. Cement, unlike the other materials, is a processed material and thus it costs more money than the other materials. Because builders in Haiti can rarely afford the ample amount of cement they will typically use less cement in the concrete mixture, which in turn makes the concrete weaker.

One unfortunate aspect of residential architecture in Haiti is that it must withstand hurricanes. The typical wood beam structure supporting metal roofing doesn’t always perform well in hurricanes, so some homes have a concrete roof (which does just fine with hurricanes). But when the concrete supporting the concrete roofs is weaker than required, now during an earthquake you have the potential of a slab of concrete falling and crushing everything inside the home.

Building codes are usually seen as a hindrance on the design and construction of  a building. The very first building codes were designed to reduce the chances of a single fire burning down an entire city (London and Chicago are great examples), and to eliminate living conditions that promote the spread of disease (New York, where it was typical to have twenty people living in a one hundred square foot room with no natural light or ventilation, is a good example of this). They don’t always make perfect sense, but building codes were developed so that buildings don’t collapse and kill everyone inside.

I’ve heard people say that we should simply not build within a disaster area. Why rebuild when the area will be stricken by another earthquake/flood/tornado/locusts/hurricane? Because where should we build? If we should abandon all disaster areas, then we would have to vacate most of California and the coastal areas of Alaska (earthquakes), the Pacific Northwest (volcanoes and tsunamis, as well as earthquakes), the Gulf Coast Region and Florida (hurricanes and flooding), a good portion of the Midwest (tornadoes, and earthquakes between St. Louis and Memphis), and any area along the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers (flooding). So that leaves us the backwoods of West Virginia, and maybe San Diego (which I believe fog is their chief natural disaster).

We’re going to live where we want to live, whether that choice is predicated by personal reasons or cultural and societal traditions. We live in architecture, and that architecture must respond to many climatic, aesthetic, and a myriad of other factors, but just as important it must also respond to the threat of impending natural disasters. Buildings will sometimes fail. The building code does not require a building that is impervious to destruction, but rather designing and constructing a building to its requirements enables a building to stand long enough for all the occupants to vacate the building before it collapses.

We rebuild because we can and should. We rebuild smarter because we must.


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