Recent Earthquakes Highlight Importance of Good Design

Two major earthquakes struck this year:  a magnitude 7.0 quake in Haiti and a larger, magnitude was 8.8 quake in Chile. The death toll in Haiti was over 200,000, while the death toll in Chile was over 400. The two countries themselves are different: Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, and Chile is a much richer country. Chile is also used to earthquakes while Haiti is not. About every seven years, Chile suffers from a major earthquake. After a 9.5 magnitude earthquake in 1960, the strongest one on record, the Chilean government created a seismic design code for all new buildings. The building codes were revised in 1993.

Andre Filiatrault, director of the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at the University at Buffalo, told the New York Times: “There is a lot of reinforced concrete in Chile, which is normal in Latin America. The only issue in this, like any earthquakes, are the older buildings and residential construction that might not have been designed according to these codes.”

“The country’s building codes and practices have been adapted to respond to this environment, helping to mitigate the level of . . . risk,” said an assessment by Risk Management Solutions of Newark, California.

The way buildings were designed in Haiti is a study in contrast. As Cameron Sinclair, executive director of San Francisco based non-profit design group, Architecture for Humanity, said, “In Haiti, most if not all of the buildings have major engineering flaws.” Jonathan Bray, earthquake engineering professor with the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that “…the buildings and infrastructure in Chile are designed considering earthquake effects – whereas Haiti had no building codes.”

Alan Dooley, a Nashville architect who designed a medical clinic in Haiti, contrasted how a building is designed in the U.S. and in Haiti. Dooley said in the U.S. architects would “double the design strength, just to give it a factor of safety.” However, in Haiti “they’d design it to what it would hold” because concrete is expensive so columns and other elements made from it are thin.

Peter Haas, executive director of Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, a nonprofit group working on several projects in Haiti, said concrete blocks are often substandard in Haiti. “When you’re buying blocks at the store you really have no idea of where they’re from,” Haas said. “And all it takes is for the block that was made at home to collapse.”

Earthquake proof material designed by Japanese researchers

Japanese researchers designed “super-elastic iron alloy,” Reuters reported last week. The metal can handle a stress level twice that of nickel titanium.

“The stress level is very high in the alloy so it can be made into a very thin wire that can reach the inner part of the body like the brain to deliver stents,” said one of the researchers, T. Omori, at Tohoku University’s Graduate School of Engineering.

“This material can be used for buildings in earthquake zones. The buildings are deformed by earthquake, but super elastic alloy can return the building to its original structure,” Omori added.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

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