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Nepal Earthquake – Why Building Codes Matter

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

Masonry Buildings Damaged by Nepal Earthquake

Earlier this week while visiting a friend, she complained about how she had an issue with a building inspector telling her that she couldn’t do something in her home the way she wanted to because it violated building code. She was quite put off by it and complained that it was “stupid.” After all, it’s her home and she’s living there. Instead of telling her what you will read here in this article, I instead turned away to a new subject, deflecting the discussion.

As an architect, I often find myself in this discussion with friends and often end up being cornered as the sole defender of regulations and building codes. It seems that a lot of people believe and argue that regulations and building codes are a violation of property rights or a conspiracy to make buildings too expensive.

The earthquake in Nepal should be a reminder that building codes matter.

This earthquake measured a magnitude 7.8 “occurred as the result of thrust faulting on or near the main frontal thrust between the subducting India plate and the overriding Eurasia plate to the north.” (1)  It occurred about 50 miles northwest of the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, a large urban center.

Early news reports were already reporting that many buildings, with people inside, had been destroyed and blame poor building standards. From an article in the LA Times, they note a report by Geohazard International that they “found that rapid urbanization, with its resulting unplanned growth and inadequate enforcement of regulations, has led to substandard and unsafe housing patterns.” (2)

In Western countries including the United States, our building codes are designed to protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public in their built environment. Building codes have been a part of human civilization for thousands of years. Our current model code in the United States is updated on a regular cycle to address issues that past codes have not addressed. This has led to an incredibly dense document that aides architects, engineers and builders in the construction of safer homes and buildings. It may seem a bit morbid, but the most important new regulations are usually adopted after disaster that led to death or severe injury.

Fire was usually the greatest catalyst for the legislation of building codes. Because of fires in places like London (1666) and Chicago (1871), building materials and new zoning laws went into effect. (3, 4)

The Northridge Earthquake in 1994 located in Southern California, was one that produced damage that engineers had not experienced before. Modern, recently built freeways were destroyed when their columns thrust through the elevated roadways. It was a different kind of earthquake than had been studied before and it led to many changes in seismic code and safety protocols. (5)

Northridge Earthquake, 1994

As I view the images in the media from Nepal, I notice that most of the crumbled and destroyed buildings are made of masonry that is not reinforced. Humans have built with unreinforced masonry for thousands of years and is the vernacular for buildings worldwide. But we have known for many years that these types of buildings tend to crumble under the force of an earthquake.

In California, building owners, architects, engineers and general building contractor have been working to reinforce existing buildings and roadways. All new buildings must meet seismic code standards that keep a building standing after a first seismic event so that occupants can exit before collapse. Hospitals in California are now mandated to be built to remain operational after severe earthquake, 9.0. (6) Even though this particular regulation has been met with a lot of controversy and financial headaches for hospital administrators, it’s important to get back to the intent of the regulation that hospitals need to be open after a disaster so that people can be treated.

Not all buildings in the US are “up to code” and not all legislation will prevent buildings from creating injury to occupants. You can even argue that a 7.8 seismic event in an urban center in California will also result in death and injury which is likely true. But because of the building codes in effect, it is unlikely that the loss of life will be as great as what we see the people of Nepal are experiencing.


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