Resilient Buildings – New York to Nepal

There is a lot of media coverage lately about “resilient” buildings. From the earthquakes in Nepal, to the tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma, to the planning commissions of New York City – resilient buildings are front and center. What resilience means in each of these locations is at once very similar and yet very different.

Shelter from the Storm

Silverberg_formatAfter the earthquakes struck in Nepal, my nephew accepted an assignment there to document the rebuilding process and the challenges. He is a skilled videographer with a big heart and keen eye for storytelling. Our family couldn’t be prouder of him.

What we learned from his stories, and those in the news, is shocking. “Around three-quarters of all deaths in earthquakes are due to building collapse,” stated recent articles in the Guardian and New York Times. This figure reflects “failure to incorporate risk and resilience into long-term planning.” This failure is not unique to Nepal, as we recently have read in U.S. newspapers. Here at home, we learned that errors in engineering judgment by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers could have prevented a great deal of the human and property damage following Hurricane Katrina. I’m sure that politics, money, and our approach to risk and resilience played a part as well.

In Nepal, with monsoon season fast approaching, it is critical to get the rice crop planted and to erect shelters that can withstand the coming rain and winds. Great effort is being made to replace temporary plastic roofing with more durable materials of corrugated tin. These shelters help to buy critical time during the long-term reconstruction process.

Shelter from the storm does not equal earthquake- and storm-proof buildings. Many schools, hospitals and community centers that were constructed properly suffered minimal damage from the recent earthquakes, while many more that were not constructed properly were destroyed, resulting in great loss of life. While public buildings are crucial to any functioning society, it is even more so in developing countries.

In New York, Singapore, Nepal and throughout Asia, urban densification is increasing. In many locales, population is concentrated in coastal areas where extreme weather events are more frequent and rising seas threaten over one billion people. Therefore, the essential attributes that resilient buildings must have are affected by place, densification, development and need.

Constructability

Using design and materials, our architects and engineers have solved the issues of building resistance to most catastrophic events. We know how to build impact-, blast- and earthquake-resistant buildings. If properly constructed and adhering to code, when the dreaded events occur, such buildings survive and protect occupants quite well. What we have not done as well is to uniformly enforce these codes and effectively plan for a changing future.

To more effectively incorporate risk and resilience into our long-term thinking, we should assume from the initial design that a building will be reglazed or reclad during its lifespan. Weather change also needs to have a stronger input into design. And let’s not depend on codes and specifications to drive construction of better buildings in the future – design is much more effective and pro-active. While I applaud recycling materials from deconstructed buildings, we must plan to replace the building’s skin to ensure our buildings last as long and perform as well as they should.

It is a far cry from more effectively incorporating retrofit into our building planning cycle to replacing plastic roofs with tin ones in Nepal that protect from the battering monsoon rains. Yet they reflect the same problem and challenge – resilience.

I’m hoping that in the reconstruction phase in Nepal, they learn from the hundreds of schools and hospitals that successfully withstood the earthquakes. The human cost of failing to learn from these lessons is too much to bear – whether in New Orleans, on our East Coast from Hurricane Sandy or in Nepal. And I’m guessing that the people in each of these situations were just as threatened. Let’s do better by them.