Buildings Kill, Not Earthquakes.

It wasn’t the earthquake but the collapse of the buildings that caused this huge trauma.

Nepal suffered a tremendous loss since the 7.8 magnitude earthquake with numerous aftershocks that took place on April 25th, 2015. According to the UN, over 8500 deaths, 22000 injuries, 70,000 fully damaged buildings with partial damage to additional 530,000 buildings have taken place. Also, more than 2.8 million people have been displaced since.

Having frequently heard about these heartbreaking losses over and over again has overshadowed the reason why these lives were lost, injuries took place and people displaced. It wasn’t the earthquake but the collapse of the buildings that caused this huge trauma. And as Peter Hass put it on his 2010 Ted Talk on Haitian quake, he said, “it was not a natural disaster but a disaster of engineering.” The statement holds true to Nepalese context as well. The buildings which have collapsed were either old buildings that have been constructed by outdated techniques, or the modern buildings which were constructed solely for business motive of buying and selling.

Earthquake

Image: NepaliTimes

Engineering Flaw:

In his talk, Peter Hass put forth some important facts on the difference between Haitian and Chilean earthquakes. Just after a month in Haiti, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Chile, which is 500 times the power of the 7.0 that hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti. However, there were only under a thousand casualties, which was less than 1% of the impact of the Haitian quake. The difference, Peter mentions, were seismic standards and confined masonry. Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) along with U.N and different NGOs inspected over 1500 buildings in Haiti and reasons of the collapse of the buildings that they found were nothing new.

The failure points were the walls and slabs not properly tied into pillars, cantilevered structures, asymmetric structures, poor building materials, not enough concrete and compression in the blocks, rebar that was exposed to weather and had rusted away. The result: the buildings shook violently, disintegrated each and every little part and were taken off. However in Chile, the building acted as a whole instead of sum of its parts. Each and every parts from slabs to walls, pillars and roofs, all were tied together to support each other instead of disintegrating and falling off. The buildings in Chile ripped in half but didn’t disintegrate as a pile of rubbers we see in Futsal carpets, like they did in Haiti and in highly damaged rural places in Nepal.

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Image: CivilProjectsOnline.com

Sustainable Construction refers to finding a balance between economic, environmental and social factors. The following factors should therefore be taken into account.

Economic factors include the Overall life cost of the building where we consider if the lifelong cost that would incur is worth it. As any product becomes obsolete over time, Value Engineering technique assesses the time frame and instead of building products with higher-grade components, it helps to limit the unnecessary that could incur. It doesn’t mean to replace quality with inferiority but to preserve the core functions and spend little in additional components. In case of buildings, prioritizing in spending the costs in making strong bases and slabs instead of spending in decorations of light bulbs and multiple paintings.

Earthquake

Image: NepaliTimes

Environmental factors include minimizing depletion of natural resources and choosing the right location by acquiring knowledge from engineers on disaster prone sites. It is important to consider every possibility of landslides occurring in case of hilly and agricultural regions to be in the safe side beforehand. The decision making process of construction should also incorporate the use of energy, water, land and materials with the preference to renewable resources over non-renewables.

Social factors include if the construction is fit for purpose of commercialization or consumption. It is important that the building supports the local economy and minimize disturbance to local residents. Opening gigantic schools or manufacturing buildings in the middle of residential area would create sense of fear and long term pollutions in air, sound, and overall environment.

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Peter Hass | Image: TED

The keynote information that Peter gave in his talk was the use of confined masonry for buildings. Chileans have been doing that for decades. He gave an example of a mason, trained by his team, who, after finding that people working started pouring the pillars wrong, took his boss aside and showed him that by doing it right it won’t cost them any more than doing it wrong.

“To make sure these buildings are safe, it’s not going to take policy, but reaching out to the masons on the ground and helping them learn the proper techniques.

Peter adds, “If you reach out to the people on the ground in this collaborative way, it’s extremely affordable. For the billions spent on reconstruction, you can train masons for dollars on every house that they end up building over their lifetime.”

The most important thing is to make masons on the ground realize whether the way they are working is the right way. All in all, a holistic process of aiming to restore and maintain harmony between natural and artificial environments which affirm human dignity and assist economic equality is required.