Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Building Codes

There was a fascinating article in Sunday's paper on how Japan's building codes protected the public during the earthquake.  Japan has the strictest seismic design and building codes in the world.  Their buildings are expected not just stay up long enough to let inhabitants escape a quake, but be (mostly) usable again immediately.  In the U.S. we expect time to flee to safety, but also to extensively repair or replace buildings afterwards.  This difference is a direct result of earthquake frequency: Japan having many, while we have few.  Cost/benefit calculation.  The damage in New Zealand, another first-world country,was mainly to the heart of Christchurch, whose old masonry buildings had not been reinforced sufficiently for such a big shock.  (I'm told the downtown square looks like it snowed drifts of bricks on the garden and benches.)

Charles Kenny's article (I'd link, but the News' site search is hopeless) discussed other quake areas like Chile and Haiti, where building codes are inadequate and enforcement lax or corrupt... resulting in horrific death tolls.  Poverty explains flimsier construction - it takes money to build well.  Easy to understand budget pressures to build cheaply and even to see how weak government allows corrupt building inspection, which sidesteps safety requirements.  No, the controversial part of his article is when he starts doing the math...

Dollar for dollar, you save more lives paying for, say, malaria medicine or schools for girls, who then know how to raise healthier children, than by buying seismic reinforcement of buildings.  Even of schools.  Though, obviously, that's where you start spending the money as soon as you have it.

Cold.  Hard to argue.

I'm glad to live in a country with enough cash and law to feel safe with a roof over my head.   Isn't that the age-old definition of safety: a roof over your head?  But even that only gets you so safe...  Japan did everything it could, built well and had extremely efficient and well-trained evacuation which saved even more lives.  Evacuation is a fancy word for fleeing-for-your-life and that was what was needed:  where there was the earthquake, there were few deaths, but where there was the tsunami, there were no survivors.
The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is the reason our U.S. building safety codes really got started.

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