“Earthquakes Don’t Kill People; Buildings Kill People.” 13

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015
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I read a comment in the Age newspaper that read: “the orthodoxy among seismologists is that earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings kill people.”

It was in a feature covering the Nepal earthquake disaster that may well have killed 10,000 people. As a law reformer and chairman of the Centre for Best Practice Building Control, this brief observation resonates, albeit in the most dastardly of circumstances.

In developing countries, buildings kill a damn side more people than their western counterparts because of the perfect storm of rapid urbanisation, overpopulation, makeshift shanty town construction and building codes that hail from a colonial and redundant yesteryear. These codes often leave a hell of a lot to be desired.

Then there is the issue of enforcement of codes and regulations, absent well-resourced and well-funded building control and enforcement bureaucracies; enforcement and compliance is often at best no more than tokenism. I have long believed that natural environment-triggered building disasters, juxtaposed with fallible building regulations, are assuming a “serial dimension” in terms of their regularity and repetitive visitations. Now we have a disaster of epic proportions.

The Centre for Best Practice Building Control has for some time been agitating for a coalescence of the willing, where international disaster management experts can connect up with civil servants to generate a new approach to regional building control. This would be an approach where bespoke building codes are fashioned to mesh with the economic, geo/socio/political constraints that define and even incarcerate particular countries, to ensure that regulations have pragmatic and workable relevance is needed.

Be it sub-continental tsunamis or earthquakes of diabolical proportions, there is a changing paradigm and the environmentally induced loss of life is escalating. This issue is not quarantined to developing nations; New Zealand is still recovering from the Christchurch earthquake and the bush fires that claimed so many lives in Victoria are still etched in recent memory. As such, we in the antipodes can ill afford to be smug because natural disasters are by nature agnostic as regard, when and where their capacity for malevolent expression presents itself.

There needs to be a radically different approach to the thinking of modern day building control and recognition that building control holistics will to a degree, be defined by the seismic and climatic characteristics of the region. There must also be a realistic appraisal of that which is achievable vis-a-vis that which is pie in the sky.

It follows that the definition of best practice building regulation needs redefining. If indeed it is buildings that kill rather than earthquakes, then that is a very sobering assessment, a damning indictment if you will, on the nature of the as built regulatory paradigm in some parts of the world.

After all, building codes are supposed to be about protecting human beings from prejudice to health, life and limb, rather than the maintenance of a status quo where the regulatory framework acts as an enabler for the construction or retention of structures that occasion harm.

Since the raison d’être of building regulations is the alleviation of loss of life and limb and the containment or moderation of the consequences that flow from environmental calamity, future regulatory architecture must be fashioned by policy that is obsessed with the objective of not accommodating the existence of buildings that can harbour the potential to kill, I might add in large numbers, when the most ominous environmental scenarios actualise.

Further, regulators must introduce building regulations that sunset in the time – the date and the year – by which potentially dangerous buildings are either demolished or made resilient. New Zealand is already doing this in terms of the earthquake proofing of older buildings that will be vulnerable in volatile seismic conditions.

I have previously stated that ”tragedy becomes a catalyst for regulatory reform, and there is a certain bespoke vernacular for this ‘crisis knee jerk reaction reform’.  The cynical lament that if you want to fix redundant regulations you need a bloody good crises rings all too true, for it is the rivers of blood that all too often are the agents for change as they galvanise politicians into action.”

No doubt Nepal will yet again give meaning to the “cynical lament” in that there will be a flurry of post-crisis reflection, post-crisis regulatory analyses and review. Yet again, however, too late the hero, the damage has been done and all we can do now is pledge help, support and empathy as our hearts go out to the families, the survivors and the souls that have departed our mortal shores.

For those nations that have been lucky enough to avoid calamities of the magnitude of the Nepal earthquake, their policy makers should be on notice regarding that which can occur if one is hamstrung by “rear view mirror” myopia. Pray tell, why does the tired metaphor of “you need a crisis to reform a system” have to maintain currency?

All nations including Australia and New Zealand must team up, and as global citizens help out, learn from and maintain a constant vigil and obsession with the desire for best practice building control to ensure that the observation that “it is buildings that kill, not earthquakes” ends up being an observation that is passé, something that was once seen through a historic lens.

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  1. Amisha Patel

    The idea that "building codes are supposed to be about protecting human beings from prejudice to health, life and limb" rings loud and clear when the facts are that the cause of an increasing number of deaths during catastrophes like in Nepal are due to the buildings themselves. This shows that the importance of building regulations should not be overlooked – as it essentially the prevention of harm.

  2. Ian Marshall

    It is true we have seen this before and will see it all again, unless the resources of countries like NZ, Australia, Singapore and the like combine forces and aid to focus on key infrastructure in countries such as Nepal to make a difference to their capacity to withstand disasters such as we see at present.
    For many countries writing the building codes is insufficient, we must deliver buildings that meet the code. Over time countries will see that some buildings are much safer than others and demand their governments for similar buildings. It is a long road but one well worthwhile treading.
    A look at more stable building methods and products is vital also.
    Very few would have died, avalanches and landslips being the exception, in Nepal these last few days had buildings been earthquake resistant in one of
    the worlds most active earthquake areas.
    If we all value life then we have a responsibility to refocus aid, grants, and resources in an effective way.
    Aid and grants, be it from countries or aid agencies, should not be affected by the environments around where infrastructure is being offered. Buildings should be built safe and secure. Less is more if it is safe

  3. Thomas Moullier

    The tragedy that just struck Nepal is a stark reminder that earthquakes continue to remain the most deadly natural hazard: They accounted for 4% of all hazard events in the past 10 years, but were responsible for 60% of disaster-related deaths of which 95% occurred in developing countries. This last event could significantly roll back development gains in Nepal, and create poverty traps for vulnerable populations. The worse can be avoided if the international community offers a robust and coordinated response. I could not agree more with such a persuasive call of action from Kim Lovegrove. In the area of building code, let us keep in mind that Nepal has been a leading innovator, in the developing world, since 1992, by trying to reach out to owners and builders of non-engineered structures and by making education of low-income groups involved in construction a top priority. The work of the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal is truly remarkable. To save future lives, efforts from the international community should build on NSET and others to find a workable path for building code implementation across the tangible constraints of low construction skills and poverty.

  4. Anne Paten

    Kim, when I read this article I thought you were commenting on the poor built environment in Victoria, and more broadly in Australia. Just last week I visited Werribee, where a house was falling down. The large-volume company, often in the news, rushed staff out at the weekend in an attempt to cover up the reality of this very conspicuous 'house' in distress. Can't imagine the owners' distress!

    Yes, we have our very own third world building industry in a supposed first world country. Daily, houses falling down, falling apart – sub-standard building materials from overseas, seconds from Australia and sub-standard 'building'. Be it the lack of reo, or bracing, or cladding, or poor plumbing, or non-compliant electrical work and consequent fires. As for 'best practice', in Victoria it is not even half best practice in 40% of cases. Remember in 2011 when the Auditor-General found that 96% of building permits did not meet even minimum building and safety standards.
    The Victoria regulatory reality is scandalous. We have our very own earthquake rumbling every day throughout Victoria; now the 'home of an enormous building disaster', not natural, but well planned, man-made and preventable.

  5. kim lovegrove.

    Thank you for your comments Ian and Thomas. Ian is a past National President of the New Zealand Institute of Building. Thomas is a senior Operations Officer at the World Bank and head of their building regulation section. Pay heed comrades to the suggestions of Ian and Thomas as there is much wisdom in their utterances.

  6. Jessica

    Great article Kim! We must take a proactive approach and ensure that best practice building control is at the forefront of our minds in order to avoid the possibility for catastrophic consequences in the event of a natural disaster.

  7. Stephen Smith

    Earthquake resiliant buildings are more expensive than simple concrete construction. There is a price to be paid, either in building it right, or the human price when it is not.

    High risk areas, especially in developing nations need effective regulatory controls and financial support if we are to try to avoid the consequences of natural disasters such as earthquakes.

  8. Adj Professor Robert Whittaker AM FAIB

    A well constrcuted article.

    The issues with historical buildings are: analysis; value engineering and retrofitting.

    Whilst you cannot always tell what buildings are at risk, it is not always clear which buildings are in imminent danger either – and this is where the work of firms such Jeary Winant and Company (based in New York) and others in dynamic modelling and other techniques – is so important.

    No one expects disasters but we all have to plan for them, proper analysis is crucial and the Telford Medal winning research of Jeary with his then colleagues Ellis and Severn on the Emossen Dam all those years ago proved in fact that crucial mathematical modelling by use of vibration dissipation was indeed possible – but the question, regardless of the method is cost which even modern economies are reluctant to spend.

    When the immediate strife is over lets heed the advice of Professor Lovegrove and others, and put the infrastructure in place, both physical and regulatory, so the lessons learned are not forgotten.

    Finally, to my friend Bhala its a relief to know your family is safe – but as per the rest of Nepal we know they're not out of the woods yet.

  9. Krishita

    It is true that ''tragedy becomes a catalyst for regulatory reform, and there is a certain bespoke vernacular for this ‘crisis knee jerk reaction reform", hence I believe every country, be it developing or developed, should put more emphasis on their building regulations to avoid such catastrophic situations. It is no doubt better to have good building regulations in the first place rather than waiting for a disaster to happen to implement precautionary measures.

  10. Craig Ruane

    The best building code in the world is only as good as the ability or willingness of those in authority to enforce it. When I worked in the Middle East about 20 years ago, the buildings in South Lebanon were built without any code that I could see, because the area was a failed state, over run by a mix of terrorists, militia, and Syrian and Israeli proxies. There may have been a code, but no one was interested in enforcing it, or they could be bought off. Much the same applied, as far as I could see in East Timor. In the towns, you paid a bribe to the local Indonesian commander (there was probably a more acceptable name – a licence fee or something of that sort, but that’s what it was) and you could build what you liked.

    But living in a first world country is no protection, witness the leaky building crisis in New Zealand. A combination of new building techniques, successive governments seduced by Rogernomics and market forces, light handed regulation, local councils outsourcing building inspection services, and cowboy builders and the end result was a generation of shonky buildings.

    And then the collapse of the CTV and PGC buildings in CHCH.

  11. Whatever stage of the cycle any country is at, there is no excuse for buildings which are unsafe or not constructed using the best possible methods and techniques which are applicable to the geology of a given country and area.

    Whilst the focus now should be on recovery, it is imperative that the rebuild is performed to the best possible standard, and that the country does not just rebuild quickly but rebuilds right. That should be done with sound input from those with expertise internationally.

  12. Thomas Moullier

    The comment of Craig Ruane is absolutely spot-on. Building standards can be introduced and adapted to local circumstances, and preferably in an inclusive manner. Indeed this process is far from being easy and straightforward, but, in my views, the most prominent failure is simply the failure of regulatory implementation. Building code implementation is primarily hampered by widespread governance failure and corruption. The problem is not limited to conflict-affected cities or countries. Roger Bilham, a well-known seismologist, pointed out that 83% of all deaths from earthquakes in the past 3 decades have occurred in countries considered most corrupt by Transparency International. In my previous comment about Kim’s article, I gave examples of amazing people in Nepal that have been hugely creative about finding practical and locally-tailored ways of making local housing more resilient through a patient and thorough educational effort. These creative & resourceful people need all the support we can give them now to operate in an enabling environment where the constraints of inefficient and corrupt code administration can be minimized to the greatest extent possible.

  13. Brian Thorrington

    In 2006 a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck central coastal Java
    The shock occurred on the southern coast of Java near the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, and caused a disproportionate number of casualties, with more than 5,700 deaths and 37,000 injuries, and financial losses of (Rp 29.1 Trillion ($3.1B)).
    The main cause of death was the collapse of residential buildings.
    Clearly this highlights the Leading statement from Kim Lovergrove and intensely highlights the need for building code reform and a globalised standard in counties prone to earthquakes
    Excellent work
    Thank you Mr Lovergrove