The Bigger They Are…

by Alex Nakahara

The recent earthquake in Haiti has focused attention on the area and especially on how shoddy construction and engineering of its buildings played a huge role in the scale of the disaster. Sights like the presidential palace collapsed like an accordion have been splashed all over the media.

Many have called for Haiti to be rebuilt earthquake-proof, and you might as well throw in hurricane and flood-proof as well, since the country sits in such a disaster-prone location. While this will probably be done for municipal buildings and other publicly funded buildings like hospitals, airports, schools and the like, the chances that the slums around Port-au-Prince will be rebuilt to withstand earthquakes are virtually nil. Most of them (most of the buildings in Haiti, probably) weren’t constructed to any building code, or even by an engineer or architect. Once the world’s attention gets distracted by some other crisis, most of the new buildings probably will be just as vulnerable.  

Much of the problem is due to the corruption and poverty endemic in Haiti, but I’ll leave the politics to my much more learned friend, Anthony. I want to ask: What can be realistically done, given Haiti’s current political problems, to reduce the loss of life in a future disaster?

Unfortunately, many of the easy answers, such as not building on high-risk sites such as hillsides or floodplains will not happen because of poverty, overcrowding and lack of government control. However, there could be a lesson to learn from a country that has suffered earthquakes and other natural disasters for millennia: Japan.

Currently, of course, Japan uses some of the most advanced building technology available. However for a long time, Japan embraced the unusual strategy of designing their buildings to fail.

While we usually consider buildings made of brick, concrete or stone to be strong and safe, in an earthquake they are among the weakest structures. While these materials can carry a large vertical load, allowing buildings to be sturdy, they cannot withstand even moderate horizontal forces, as happen in earthquakes. If you ever built towers from blocks when you were a little kid, you would know that it’s easy to make something strong enough to sit on but that nothing could save it if your baby brother gave it a small push.

The Japanese recognized this, and designed their homes from wood and paper. While many of them still fell down when an earthquake happened, they were so simple that they could often be rebuilt in a day. In addition, their lightweight construction meant that those inside had a much higher chance of survival and rescue.

The final irony is that another earthquake will probably not hit Haiti for a while, and that instead of trying to build buildings that can survive Armageddon, Haitians should focus on buildings that can shelter all the displaced during the next hurricane season.

Nevertheless, my (probably naïve) idea is this: provide an IKEA-like kit with instructions and materials (or just instructions) for building a simple, lightweight home that can be built and rebuilt quickly and won’t kill you when it falls down in an earthquake (or hurricane). Perhaps they could be modular or stackable, so that apartment buildings could be made instead of the heavyset concrete ones that collapsed. It will be a while before Haiti will have enough professionals to do construction; this would make life easier and safer for the amateurs.