Monday, January 25, 2010

Building Codes, Earthquakes, and Haiti

Two weeks ago tomorrow, the worst earthquake in two centuries hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The official death toll has exceeded 100,000 and it is likely that millions are homeless and will have to leave the city temporarily or permanently. The survivors have my sympathy and prayers, along with hopes that this terrible tragedy will have a few positive outcomes. One of the best possible outcomes would be a change in the way the city and country are rebuilt.

Laws concerned with how buildings are constructed can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi promulgated around 1800 B. C. Its provisions were simple: if a building collapsed on its owner and killed him, the builder lost his head. This was a powerful, if negative, incentive, but it lacked something in the area of specificity. In the U. S., Baltimore was the first city to adopt a prescriptive code that not only laid out penalties for poor construction, but described what good construction was. This was around 1904. Since then, advances in structural engineering and materials science have given us the tools to predict how almost any structure will behave under a wide variety of anticipated natural disasters, from hurricanes and floods to earthquakes. But the problem in Haiti was that this knowledge, even in the rare instances when people possessed it, was rarely applied.

Amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince, the tallest building in Haiti—the Digicel building, completed about a year ago—still stands with only minor cosmetic damage. Why? It was constructed according to American building codes to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake—and it did. A plainer argument for enforcement of building codes could not be imagined.

If Haiti has any building codes, I was unable to ascertain exactly what they amount to or where they apply. A project that was ongoing in 2007 under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) put up a website that stated Haiti has no national building code, and was focused on developing one. According to news reports, any building codes that exist are merely on paper, and people use cinder blocks that are basically home-made, reportedly weighing only about 12% of what the same size block would weigh if it was made under U. S. standards. Reinforcing bar is used sparingly, if at all, and when people need more room they just go down to the homemade cinder-block store and pile another story or two onto their house. Radical libertarians might do well to study Haiti as an example of what happens when government absents itself completely from the supervision of private and even public construction. Things can go well for a while, but when an earthquake hits, the devastation is nearly total.

And while engineers, to the extent they were involved at all in Haitian construction practices, deserve blame for not building better buildings, an individual engineer can do only so much in a regulatory, economic, political, and cultural environment that militates so strongly against good construction. Digicel was able to build according to American codes because it had the money and expertise to do so. The average Haitian in a country with the lowest per-capita income in the Western Hemisphere cannot afford to pay that much, unless he wants to live in an earthquake-proof building the size of a phone booth.

What will have to change if the next earthquake is not to produce equal devastation?

Clearly, the people will need to demand that the government get serious about building codes. Unfortunately, there is little precedent in recent history for the Haitian government getting serious about anything besides corruption and self-serving behavior on the part of its politicians. But perhaps the shock engendered by this tragedy will make people understand that corruption has a price, and the price is one that Haitians can no longer afford. Something like that happened after the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist disaster, in which 146 garment workers died when a New York City sweatshop caught fire. That tragedy inspired the creation of the American Society of Safety Engineers and led to important legislation regarding worker safety.

But clearly those aspects of Haitian culture which take a laissez-faire attitude toward future-directed regulation of any kind, including building codes, must change if Haitians are to live in safer buildings in the future. How this can happen is a problem for politicians, diplomats, the hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have poured many millions of dollars into Haiti over the last few decades, and most of all the citizens, who alone can demand better of their government than they have received heretofore. We have the knowledge of how to build safer buildings, though it is perhaps not distributed very widely in Haiti. What was lacking, and what I hope will arise in the future, is the will to reach a compromise between the total lack of building codes that went on before the earthquake, and an American-style set of codes that would put new construction totally out of reach for all but the richest Haitians. This requires ingenuity, political smarts, and good will on all sides, but it can happen. I only pray that it will.

Sources: I used Wikipedia’s article on building codes and news items on Haiti found at and

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