Thursday, January 21, 2010

Did Architects Fail Haiti?

Every time I turn hear or read the news this week, it breaks my heart a little. I've heard wildly divergent numbers for the death toll in Haiti, but whatever it winds up being, we know this: its too high.

Now, no one in the world has asked my opinion, but I have to say something about the terrible toll this earthquake has taken on the people of Haiti. Obviously, earthquakes are not man made. Despite some crackpot opinions about global warming that I have heard, earthquakes happen because of the shifting of tectonic plates, deep in the earth. It has nothing to do with what humans do up on the surface. Since humans discovered what causes earthquakes, scientists have been searching for a way to predict and prevent them from occurring. Despite the enormous amount of research that has gone into this subject, we are no closer to doing so. Earthquakes remain unpredictable and dangerous. But that does not, in my opinion, let us off the hook for what has happened to the Haitian people.

Are you aware there was an earthquake in the very northern part of California the same week as the earthquake in Haiti? It was a 6.5, much less than the 7.0 that rocked Haiti, but still very significant. The California earthquake badly damaged parts of Eureka, causing over $20 million in damage. According to press reports, about 30 people were injured, one seriously enough that she had to be admitted to the hospital.

Let me repeat that: a significant earthquake hit a mid-sized US city and 30 people were injured. No one died.*

Is the devastation that hit Haiti just an "act of God," then? Emphatically, let me state that we do not have the technology to build "earthquake-proof" buildings. But we can build safer buildings. Clearly, we have the knowledge and technology to build buildings that can allow the occupants to exit safely. We also have the know-how to build the buildings that house first-responders (police, fire, paramedics, etc) so that only extremely large seismic events will disrupt them. This is the case in California, where our Emergency Services Act helps ensure that after a major event, there are at least some working police, firefighters and paramedics, and, equally important, the dispatchers needed to make sure those first responders get to the people who need them.

So let me return to the question that started this topic in my mind: did architects fail the people of Haiti? Should we be working as a profession to ensure that all people, everywhere, can reliably live in a safe place? It will not surprise you to find that I think the answer to this question is yes.

Fortunately, there are smart people in this world who beat me to the punch in thinking about these issues. I'm particularly impressed by the folks at Architecture For Humanity, who have been in business for over 10 years, working to bring safe shelter to people around the world. Check out their site and give if you feel so inclined.

* Since the Richter scale is logarithmic (for example, a 7.0 is 10 times more powerful than a 6.0), the Haiti earthquake was 5 times more powerful than one in Eureka. More equivalently, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused part of the Bay Bridge and a section of the freeway in Oakland to collapse, was a 6.9. From Wikipedia: Fifty-seven of the deaths were directly caused by the earthquake; six further fatalities were ruled to have been caused indirectly. In addition, there were 3,757 injuries as a result of the earthquake—400 severely hurt. The loss of life in the SF Bay Area during this earthquake was tragic, but it was not near the scale of what we are seeing in Haiti. I believe my point still stands.

Update: Some thoughts on Chile's earthquake as well.


  1. Good post Lorin! It makes me feel so very guilty living in my sturdily built little home knowing how desparate they are there. Hopefully this is a heads up for all of us.

  2. Saw this on your sister's page and I was very impressed. My first conversation about Haiti was actually about the construction and economic develpment as the re-build. (or, more accurately, DEVELOP since "re-build" implies that they were we have assumed some responsibility to make Haiti a first world country that it never was)

  3. This is a very interesting and important question!
    It is clear that building codes save lives. Unfortunately codes are instituted and enforced by processes that may or may not be democratic or in the interest of the people.
    However, in principle an architect serves to protect the health safety and welfare of the public, regardless of whether codes exist, and regardless of where he/she is.
    I believe the answer to your question, in principle, is yes, we have failed Haiti.

  4. so what are the solutions to provide cost effective earthquake proof multi-story buildings?

  5. There is probably no such thing as an earthquake "proof" building. Buildings are generally designed, in earthquake zones if mandated, to resist catastophic structural failure during such an event. The design criteria used or codified is generally a response to what is known to date regarding the varying behavior of earthquakes. In other words,I believe there has never been a recorded 9.0 earthquake, therefore buildings are not yet designed to withstand this magnitude (that I am aware of). Mother nature is the only one who knows what to expect in this case.
    The most practical solution is based on good design configuration of a building. This doesn't necessarily cost anything more than a poorly configured building. However, additional code required and perhaps extra measures that need to be incorporated do add significant cost to the structure of buildings.
    There are too many variables with earthquakes and the complexities of building design to go into it here, however, I hope this begins to open up the discussion.

  6. In response to the third Anonymous's comment, I would like to point out that I clearly stated there is no such thing as an earthquake proof building. I would be remiss as an architect if I let anyone think I had said that.

    And yes, as the commenter noted, configuration is an easy way to design a better building in an earthquake zone. L-shaped buildings, "soft" stories, etc, are notoriously bad at withstanding earthquakes. But I doubt this was the cause of most of the problems in Haiti. I would point, instead, to two other simple fixes:
    - good foundations. no ungrouted brick or masonry, and foundation should be appropriate for soil type. They don't need to be massive caissons, but they need to be more than just a layer of CMU's thrown on the ground.
    - hold-downs, which literally keep a building on its foundation, are very inexpensive and can save lives.

    Beyond that, a simple way to look at a buildng and think about how it will do in an earthquake is to, in your mind's eye, turn it on its side. What is the load path then? In other words, are there enough connected elements (shear panels, headers, etc) to support each side? I disagree that good design will add significant cost. It may add some, but in the overall cost to build, there are many solutions that are economic.


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