Homebuilders versus Mother Nature’s worst
The destruction wrought by earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and floods teaches engineers how to build tougher, better homes.
The major earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and now Southern California and Mexico this year highlight the power of building codes in saving lives and structures. Building codes, the critical provisions for minimum levels of safety in building design and construction, can be the difference between minimal property damage and outright ruin.
Numbers from this year's two biggest temblors tell the grim tale: The magnitude 7.0 quake that shook Haiti's crowded capital, Port au Prince, in January killed about 230,000 people and collapsed a similar number of buildings. Six weeks later, an offshore earthquake 500 times as powerful rattled Chile, where the death toll remains in the low hundreds. Chile's damage, while widespread, pales in comparison to Haiti's mountains of rubble. Experts attribute much of the difference to construction norms in the two stricken countries.
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"In Haiti, there are no building codes enforced at all," says Andre Filiatrault, director of the Multidisciplinary Center in Earthquake Engineering Research at the University of Buffalo. Filiatrault visited Haiti after the recent earthquake. On the Chilean side, visiting MCEER associates "saw a completely different story," Filiatrault says. Advanced codes on par with those in the United States, developed over a long history of Chilean earthquakes, helped avoid "the whole level of devastation we saw in Haiti."
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In the U.S., disasters from hurricanes to tornadoes to wildfires have promoted architectural innovation, toughening the rules under which homes must be built. In crafting these building codes, engineers must weigh the economics of girding a home against an unlikely natural disaster. "We could build something that could stand up to virtually anything, but you probably won't want to live in it and you probably couldn't afford it," says Tim Reinhold, senior vice president for research and chief engineer at the Institute for Business and Home Safety.
In balancing safety and cost, most states and municipalities in the U.S. have adopted the well-regarded code created by the nongovernmental, nonprofit International Code Council. Governments then tailor this "model code" to regional geology, meteorology and socioeconomics.
Places threatened by natural disasters often go beyond the code, adding amendments that call for different construction techniques and products. Insurance companies often encourage builders and clients to make residences as robust as possible. "We're big advocates for the building code arena and to understand and improve them, but what we really want is for people to build beyond code," says Michael Milligan, a loss mitigation administrator for the insurance company State Farm.
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Milligan and other experts interviewed for this story point to the IBHS's "Fortified … for safer living" program. It offers comprehensive recommendations for homebuilders in disaster-prone areas, such as the five described below. If your home is in one of these spots, here's how building codes can help.