Page N1.2 . 13 January 2010                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department
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Haiti Earthquake


Long after the massive disaster response, which, as time is running out for rescues, is still being assembled, there will be a continuing need for reconstruction of buildings, and for upgrading the building culture.

In terms of building culture, one thing we at ArchitectureWeek would like to ask is for building industry professionals to avoid jumping to quick, easy, stereotyped conclusions about this disaster.

Buildings can kill when the wrong force hits the wrong construction. Yet they are integral to our lives, at almost every level of wealth.

Initial impressions of the devastation in Port-au-Prince suggest that, while the city has a significant proportion of the hand-built, ad hoc buildings one might assume would be most vulnerable to a quake — and as vulnerable as those informal buildings were — a number of larger buildings, either not built to engineering standards, or else built to engineering standards that didn't account for the experienced seismic event, appear to have been similarly deadly, or perhaps even worse.

Is Haiti's failure to enact national building codes a simple explanation for the huge death and destruction from this earthquake, as some commentators have implied? What about shoddy contruction?

We think good building codes are an important dimension of a well-regulated, safe, and sustainable building culture, and really good construction is required for buildings to survive strong ground motion. We think Haiti deserves both. But we think the devastating shortfall of building culture in Haiti, relative to need, has more complex and far-reaching roots.

While it seems shocking that Haiti does not have established national building standards, let's recall that Hurricane Katrina swept across parts of the United States that did not have building codes in place. We should also grasp that some of the worst destruction in that sad disaster has been officially ascribed to grievous errors made by licensed professional engineers, employed by the U.S. federal government.

Moreover, as of November 2009, six states in the U.S. — representing a total of three times the population of Haiti — still did not have statewide building codes. Within the U.S. states that don't have comprehensive building codes, some local areas have instituted their own building code provisions.

But in general, with or without local, state, or national codes, it is always the ethical responsibility of a professional engineer or architect to design structures to appropriate professional standards, including seismic safety factors.

Prior to January 12, 2010, the area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was assigned a moderate earthquake risk by international technical authorities.

And how many of the areas of the United States, in all its wealth, that have not seen a major quake in the last 200 years, have made their building stock from the 1970s and earlier truly ready for the ground accelerations of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake?

Compared to the most powerful country in the world, how much investment is it reasonable to have expected toward mitigation of officially moderate long-term risks in Haiti, when providing safe drinking water on an everyday basis is a technical feat that remains unconquered?

Nonetheless, efforts to establish a national building code in Haiti, to be synchronized with the International Building Code (IBC) through a regional project updating the Caribbean Uniform Building Code (CUBiC) to the Caribbean Uniform Building Standards (CUBiS), were being supported by the Organization of American States (OAS) Department of Sustainable Development (DSD) in 2005, in coordination with the Ministry of Public Works, Communications and Transport (MTPTC) of Haiti.

The building standards development effort for Haiti was fully planned at that point. It failed to go forward because international funding was not continued for implementation. Continuing regional efforts at updating model building codes for earthquakes and for wind loads, coordinated by the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), also appear to need increased support to be effective.

At the same time, broad scientific evidence suggests it may not just be perception that led authors of the ACS project to write, "Over the last two decades, the Greater Caribbean Region has experienced a dramatic upsurge in the frequency of natural hazards, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and flooding."

One way we can honor the victims of this disaster is to really address, and ultimately solve, some of the systematic network of problems that helped make it so deadly.

In many countries, in areas with magnitude 7.0 or greater seismic event potential, many buildings remain unsafe. And they will kill again, unless we stop them.

Let's make sure the lessons of the Haiti earthquake can be studied carefully, learned closely, and put into effect widely. Let's make sure, with all deliberate speed, that our concrete professional responses are felt not just where the earth shook on January 12, but all around the world.

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

Kevin Matthews is Editor in Chief of ArchitectureWeek.


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This map shows the large number of collapsed (red dot) and damaged buildings in Port-au-Prince, according to an early disaster assessment.
Image: United Nations c/o ReliefWeb   Download PDF


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This map shows extensive blocked and restricted roads and bridges (red and orange circles) according to a disaster assessment using satellite imagery.
Image: c/o ReliefWeb   Download PDF


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This map shows areas of ground motion intensity, and population affected. Due to the proximity of the earthquake to the city center, an unusually large population of approximately 2.8 million people were in areas subjected to the highest levels of shaking, levels 9 or 10 on the Modifed Mercalli Intensity (MMI) scale.
Image: USAID c/o ReliefWeb   Download PDF



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The Haitian Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince suffered major structural damage, and sections of the building collapsed.
Photo: UN Photo/ Marco Dormino Extra Large Image

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While many buildings were damaged or destroyed, some survived relatively intact.
Photo: UN Photo/ Marco Dormino Extra Large Image

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Debris litters the streets of Port-au-Prince, while bodies continue to be pulled from collapsed buildings.
Photo: UN Photo/ Marco Dormino Extra Large Image

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Haitians work to recover a body from a collapsed school building in Port-au-Prince.
Photo: UN Photo/ Marco Dormino Extra Large Image

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The elite five-story Hotel Montana was reduced to a pile of rubble.
Photo: UN Photo/ Logan Abassi Extra Large Image

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Earthquake damage in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Photo: UN Photo/ Logan Abassi Extra Large Image

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Dense shantytowns built on unstable hillsides south and east of downtown Port-au-Prince were heavily damaged in the January 12 earthquake.
Photo: UN Photo/ Logan Abassi Extra Large Image

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Damaged buildings near Port-au-Prince.
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard/ Petty Officer 2nd Class Sondra-Kay Kneen Extra Large Image


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