Comparing Haiti and Chile: Did Building Codes Save Lives?

chile earthquake building codes saved lives photo

Images from The Big Picture

The Libertarian point of view is that building codes are evil and an intrusion. They even say that "Building codes restrict innovation. If we didn't force everyone to comply with old technological standards in construction, we would likely have developed a system that is both cheaper than current systems and more resistant against natural disasters." Others say "Strict building codes makes it harder to build buildings. Prices of structures will skyrocket."

But does the experience in Chile, where the number killed is roughly 1/10 of 1% of Haiti, prove the Libertarians wrong, that tough regulation is necessary and saves lives?

Brigitte Meinhold in Inhabitat thinks so, calling their codes and quake-resistant techniques among the best in the world. She says "Its situation is a testament to what a huge life-or-death difference smart building codes and well designed architecture can make." She points us to a BBC article that describes the structural systems they use:

chile earthquake building codes saved lives photo design

The idea is that buildings are held up by reinforced concrete columns, which are strengthened by a steel frame. Reinforced concrete beams are joined onto the columns to make floors and the roof.

If there is an earthquake, the idea is that the concrete on the beams should break near the end, which dissipates a lot of the energy of the earthquake, but that the steel reinforcement should survive and the columns should stay standing, which means the building will stay upright.

Melissa Lafsky at the Infrastructurist agrees that strong codes made the difference. But in comments, you can hear the Libertarian argument:

It's not the building codes. It's their wealth. It's the structures themselves that stood the test, not some bureaucratic enforced legislation.

The idea, that without government enforced building codes, that a country's infrastructure would be weaker is ludicrous. What apartment complex, business park, high rise, or hotel would invest their capital in a structurally unsound structure? Risk their occupants, customers or owners lives? NO ONE! And if they did, they wouldn't stay in business.

Unfortunately this just isn't true. Builders cut corners all the time, and are interested in building at the lowest possible cost. They are perfectly happy to shift the burden to the owners and the insurance companies. And occupants don't know risk either, and happily live in old brick unreinforced structures in the middle of earthquake zones.

Cameron Sinclair noted in the Huffington Post that Chilean architects and designers take earthquakes seriously.

"When you look at the architecture in Chile you see buildings that have damage, but not the complete pancaking that you've got in Haiti," said Cameron Sinclair, executive director of Architecture for Humanity, a 10-year-old nonprofit that has helped people in 36 countries rebuild after disasters.

Sinclair said he has architect colleagues in Chile who have built thousands of low-income housing structures to be earthquake resistant.

In Haiti, by contrast, there is no building code.

Patrick Midy, a leading Haitian architect, said he knew of only three earthquake-resistant buildings in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

chile earthquake building codes saved lives photo side

This building tells an interesting story; the ground turned liquid under it and it fell over on it's side, yet it pretty much held together. As one retired engineer put it: "Perfectly strong, but tilted, and this is not good for the people inside, especially if they have grand pianos!"

In America, where the price per square foot is everything, people happily buy wood houses in fire and earthquake zones, and don't give a moment's consideration to whether there are hurricane roof tie-downs; it is the price that matters. Building codes, and their proper enforcement, are about the only thing protecting them. Chile proves the point.

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