September 4th, 2010
04:26 PM ET

Building standards make difference in quake deaths

A facade lies collapsed while another building burns Saturday morning in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Cars buried in rubble, roads ripped apart and gutted buildings are some of the startling images coming out of Christchurch, New Zealand, after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake.

But the country's system of standards and quality control for building construction may have saved the affected areas from the death and devastation endured by the people of Haiti after a 7.0 earthquake in January.

"It comes back to building standards and the quality of construction, the materials used and the quality control in the building process," said Andrew Charleson, an associate professor at the Victoria University of Wellington's School of Architecture.

The construction of every commercial and residential building in New Zealand has to be approved by the local city council in accordance with the national building code. Haiti's reputation for lax building regulation and weak code enforcement, on the other hand, left its citizens vulnerable to disaster, said Charleson, who is also director of the Earthquake Hazard Center, a nonprofit that focuses on earthquake-resistant construction in developing countries.

"In most cities in developing countries, people just build how they want to, and they build cheap and nasty and dangerous, and there's no building controls to force them to build to a higher standard," he said. "Buildings kill people because they haven't been built to high enough standards, and it's only an earthquake that exposes this reality."

Officials declared a state of emergency Saturday after the powerful predawn earthquake struck near Christchurch. Power was out in the northwest part of the city, while water and sewage services have been affected in several regions, the Christchurch Civil Defense Group said. Roughly 100 people were being treated for minor bumps and cuts and two people suffered more serious injuries.

New Zealand has seen its fair share of earthquakes - about 100 to 150 each year that are big enough to be felt, according to New Zealand's Insitute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences. It's the price of living on several active fault lines, including the Alpine Fault, which runs for about 600 kilometers up the spine of the South Island and forms the "on-land" boundary of the Pacific and Australian Plates.

It took what most New Zealand residents refer to as "the last major earthquake" to set the country on its path toward current regulatory standards, Charleson said. The magnitude 7.8 Napier Earthquake of 1931 devastated the cities of Napier and Hastings, leaving at least 256 people dead and setting the art deco architectural design standard that remains in place today.

"That was the earthquake that started New Zealand down the track of better building standards. So this quake is going to be up there in terms of its influence on the resilience of New Zealand cities," Charleson said.

Of course, it helps that New Zealand has a first-world economy with a gross domestic product of US$115.3 billion, compared with Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere with a GDP of US$11.99 billion. About 80 percent of Haitians live under the poverty line, according to 2009 estimates from the CIA's World Fact Book.

As a result of its seismic activity, the country has some of the world's top experts in earthquake engineering, many of whom come out of the University of Canterbury's engineering department. And, like most countries that experience frequent seismic activity, New Zealand has incorporated earthquake design principles into its building code.

"We've got a really robust building control system which very strongly recognizes seismic risks and takes those into account," said Graeme McIndoe, a Wellington-based architect and urban designer who recently served as a consultant to the New Zealand government on its Urban Technical Advisory Group.

The key is to construct buildings out of material that's "ductile," or the opposite of brittle, so they won't suddenly crack and collapse during an earthquake, McIndoe said.

To achieve this goal, most residential housing tends to be made of light timber frames that are inherently ductile and stand up to force, he said. Commercial buildings consist mainly of concrete reinforced with steel to deal with the tension.

In fact, New Zealand's strict building code has been criticized for being prohibitively expensive, McIndoe said.

"At the moment, the concerns are largely to do with housing affordability, that our controls are too rigorous and the processes too time-consuming, which add to the cost and complication," he said. "The requirements are not an issue. We know if we get the construction right, we have a chance at getting through an event without loss of life and minimal damage."

But it wasn't always that way. The images from Christchurch of toppled brick buildings and reports of at least one serious injury caused by a brick chimney that fell on a man evoke an era of less stringent building codes.

"Brick buildings are sturdy against small levels of earthquake, but once the earthquake gets to certain intensity and the bricks start to break, there's no steel reinforcement in the system to stop the building from being incredibly brittle," Charleson said. "It's that lack of reinforcement that's the problem. Unreinforced brick is incredibly hazardous."

Then there are the damaged roads and ruptured water and sewage pipes. The roads in Christchurch rest atop loose sand and peat that turns to mush during an earthquake, ejecting sand upward and disturbing pipes, Charleson said.

Such damage comes with the seismic territory, he said.

"We do have certain standards for roads, but the thing is roads have to go everywhere. We could design a road that wouldn't damage but would be prohibitively expensive, and it's relatively easy to repair roads. A society just couldn't afford to make roads damage free."

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Filed under: New Zealand • World
soundoff (85 Responses)
  1. Matt

    This can't possibly be true! My teabagger friends assure me that GOVERNMENT IS ALWAYS THE PROBLEM and that regulation is inherently evil.

    September 4, 2010 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Tetley Redrose

      That's because your teabagger friends are so consumed by their hubris that they don't even realize the world doesn't revolve around them. Teabagger rules only apply to teabagger places and mean nothing to the rest of the world.

      September 4, 2010 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
    • michael

      Don't get caught up in the hubris of this article.

      When it comes down to it, New Zealand has strong buildings because they can afford it. Enforce the same building codes in Haiti, and you will have almost no buildings, and a huge homeless population.

      Living in a first world nation, it's easier to forget about physical reality.

      September 4, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Codemaster

      @Michael: Haiti has no buildings and a huge homeless population now, after an earthquake with no building codes. Seismic construction only adds about a 10% premium. So, assuming the same investment haiti would have 90% of what they had if they enforced seismic building codes, and they would have had much less loss of life. Seems an easy choice to make.

      September 4, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Barrett

      San Luis Obispo, California has very strict laws that require seismic retrofitting of all unreinforced masonry buildings. You probably would not have seen those Christchurch brick buildings in the state of collapse that they appear in the photos. If NZ required those standards to be met the city would be safer and the construction industry and lenders would get a real shot in the arm.

      September 4, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. John

    Any bets New Zealand also has built some resistance to typhoons into their building codes too? For an island nation with really minimal resources (compared to say the US), they sure seem to have done a better job of mitigating problems or preventing them than the USA does. Maybe it has something to do with having a population that understands that no matter how "ruggedly individualist" they are, that they still live in a society.

    September 4, 2010 at 9:46 am | Report abuse |
    • thhhhhhhhhh

      Or having less land is easier to manage.

      September 4, 2010 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
    • byron

      Less land and people are easier to manage.

      September 4, 2010 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • kake79

      Yeah but those sheep sure did raise a ruckus over the regulations.

      September 4, 2010 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Carrie

      NZer here – no, the country is luckily not in a typhoon or hurricane zone. We call them tropical cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere. Many of the Pacific islands to the north of us get hit hard annually but we are too far south. One will occasionally swing down that far and do some damage (I remember Cyclone Bola in 1988) but even then, much of the northern end of the country is very rural with low population density so it rarely causes infrastructure damage on the level that earthquakes do.

      September 4, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Allen Wollscheidt

      Your comment particularly applies to our head-in-the-sand State of Arizona.

      September 4, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      @John, New Zealanders are easier to manage because they dont have the likes of Fox News and other news groups trying their hardest to get specific party's into power, there is some bias from time to time by nothing as insane as in the USA.

      September 5, 2010 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |
  3. Alex

    Ha. Alan Greenspan wrote an essay in one of Any Rand's books where he argued that building codes we a small step toward socialism and that we should let the free market decide what is acceptable or not.

    What a tool....

    September 4, 2010 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      The lady's name is Ayn Rand, pronounced "Ann".

      September 4, 2010 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
    • tiddingwright

      LIke Greenspan has any crediility

      September 4, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      The free market knows only one thing. Who will give it to me the cheapest. Building code does two things. Keeps the workers and the infustrature up and running. Therefore isn't is wiser to have strong code for buildings in areas that can be inflicted by natural disasters? Looks like it to me. I don't think you will see New Zealand begging for aid after a 7.0 earthquake. NZ was not always a first world country and placed their building codes in place well before it was seen as a first world country.

      September 4, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brook

      @James: Your comment
      "NZ was not always a first world country and placed their building codes in place well before it was seen as a first world country."

      At what stage in NZ's history was it not a 1st world country? Check your history before making comments like that please. At one stage in the 1950's NZ was ranked number 1 in world economically. You just another ignorant American?

      September 6, 2010 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
  4. LB

    A big hooray for Civil Engineers! They're the ones to thank when these big quakes hit and there are so few casualties – zero in this case. It's no miracle and no accident, it's due to the dedication, professionalism, and hard work of CEs.

    Hang in there, Kiwis – best wishes to you all.

    September 4, 2010 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
    • I&C guy

      agree with you LB.. CE's are seldom appreciated, but this NZ "miracle" is just due to their due diligence.. hang in there kiwis....

      September 4, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Samson

    As a republican I detest strict regulation of any kind. It was God that saved New Zealand. Today only, instant salvation if you give 10% of your income to the Church of Glen Beck.

    September 4, 2010 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Dave


      Get your hair cut !!!!

      September 4, 2010 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Leonard

      Claiming to be a republican and bringing in God's name are two different things. I am a Christian and yes, God no doubt "had a hand in this". However, it is the building code enforcement that carried the day. I bet that much of the damage (most?) was to structures predating the strict building code.

      September 4, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laura

      I'm pretty sure, I'll be giving my money to all the people that have lost their houses since it's going to cost over $2 billion to cover it all, since I live in Christchurch and I've seen and experienced it first hand.

      September 4, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Russell

      If there is a God then, we can be sure that God will have provided us with some commonsense and strong building codes are exactly that, commonsense.

      September 4, 2010 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Robyn Harris

    George Bush's America
    Bottom 98% die hard Capitalist (Healthcare? HA! Go die in the street)
    Top 2% Socialist to the Core. (My Brokerage firm went Brokerage due to idiot investments. Bail me out!)
    Thanks Republican Party! (Please go double the debt again by giving huge tax breaks to billionaires.)

    September 4, 2010 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
    • kake79

      WTH does that have to do with New Zealand's building codes?

      September 4, 2010 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  7. philipe12

    Wondering the "building standard" for withstanding a hundred foot tidal wave.

    September 4, 2010 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Do a risk/return analysis.

      September 4, 2010 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Very easy, build above the 100 foot mark!

      September 4, 2010 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steven Miller

      Hills! There's lots of those in NZ. The next problem we have is all the volcanoes we've got lying around too! I love my country!

      September 4, 2010 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Queen Barbara

    The Tea Party promotes the government that strenghtens society and creates political structures that would spare us from political earthquakes.

    September 4, 2010 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  9. Becca

    I love my NZ friends and I am very glad they are alive and well with just a few people being hurt and no one was killed.
    They must be doing something right in that country. It is sad though it will be a few Billion dollars to fix all of the damage.
    I would love to know just how much we will help this country as we have helped so many others that have been in a state of emergency. I guess time will tell!

    September 4, 2010 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Carrie

      NZ has an Earthquake Commission which does have billions of dollars set aside for this sort of thing. It is basically a government insurance agency that works in a similar way to the national healthcare system. No foreign aid will be needed or asked for. Can I ask if anyone wants to donate money, please send it to Haiti instead, or to other victims of disasters who are still suffering and don't have the ability of NZ or the USA to help themselves.

      September 4, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • ChanNem

      I second that suggestion – donate your money to people in Haiti. The UN and American military in Hawaii kindly pledged to help but this was respectfully – if somewhat unexpectedly – declined. We appreciate the offer but would only take it if we really needed it. We have the resources to take care of this internally. Let's see Haiti rebuilt so it won't fall down again – just like they have been rebuilding New Orleans with more care.

      September 5, 2010 at 1:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Becca

      Before we help anyone including Haiti we need to help our own country New Orleans is still years and years from being put back together so heck with Haiti New Orleans is still pretty much left on its own now and they still need tons of help. So I say please help new Orleans before Haiti.

      September 6, 2010 at 1:34 am | Report abuse |
  10. Christine

    I lived in NZ- Auckland- for 3.5 years recently (we moved home to the US last year). I have to say that the newer buildings in Auckland were awful. I lived in a 15 floor highrise that at 3 years old had major structural problems and structural and superficial cracking and shifting throughout. I had absolutely no confidnece that the building would hold in an earthquake. Also, yes, there is a much smaller population there to deal with which makes implementing certain policies much easier- especially in a socialist state (in all but name). However, the reality is that even if they have strict building codes I did not see adherance to that in practice.

    September 4, 2010 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Emma


      I'm not sure whether you are aware of this, but for going on ten years now there has been large debates over what is termed the "leaky buildings" crisis in Auckland. Apartment blocks and the like that were built in Auckland within the last ten/fifteen years did not meet certain building requirements, hence the cracking and structual problems you have described. Proceedings to fix the problems are currently ongoing. Other than that, the building requirements in NZ overall are met and up to a high standard, which is what this article is attempting to encompass.

      PS. Why on earth would you want to move back after experiencing NZ! I'm never going back to the States, ever.

      September 4, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tracy Thompsn

      Christine, you are absolutely correct. There may be the codes, but absolutely no enforcement of them, hence the "leaky building" issue that has cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The only reason this was more of a problem is that it didn't happen in Auckland or Wellington. Heaven help us if it ever does.

      Kiwis love their property investment and put the absolute minimum into their spec housing. WE bought a house that after 10 years was falling apart. Good thing tha wasn't in the earthquake area.

      September 4, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Christine, yes there is a problem with 'leaky homes'. Because a conservative 'no regulation' type government in the 1990's decided to cut red tape. The end result in the NZ tax payer having to pay billions, and individual home owners (the victims) losing hundreds of thousands for something that was in no way their fault. I partly agree with your socialist comment as there are far too many people being paid to do nothing here. But I do love my public health system 😉

      P.S. I am a Kiwi living in Rangiora, a rural town just outside Christchurch. There is very little damage here that I am aware of, almost a non-event. Bizarrely, Kaiapoi, a town 10 minutes down the road is wrecked and under curfew.

      September 4, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert O'Callahan

      Tracy Tompsn is incorrect. The "leaky buildings" were built after the building code was relaxed to allow construction techniques that should never have been allowed. The building code has been fixed and new buildings are now fine. Of course there will always be the odd building where mistakes are made.

      Zero deaths in the Christchurch earthquake is strong evidence that the building code system is basically working well.

      September 5, 2010 at 6:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      Actually, the reason behind the leaking building was adherence, but faults in the standards about the use of some cladding products.
      The rules were enforced, but the leaks were the result of inadequate products, and aren't an actual safety concern.

      September 6, 2010 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
  11. james

    This clown's comparing New Zealand with Haiti? New Zealand is a wealthy nation. It can afford homes and businesses built with earthquake-resistant techniques. Someone please explain to us how perhaps the poorest nation on Earth can afford earthquake building standards? It's not a matter of enforcement. It's a matter of what can you afford! Can anyone guess why construction in California is so much more expensive than anywhere else in the US? THEY HAVE TO BUILD FOR EARTHQUAKES, that's why! It costs money, and Haiti doesn't have money.

    September 4, 2010 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
  12. milenkovic

    Yah, sometimes sarcasm isn't recognized as such.

    September 4, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Paul Johnson

    One constructive observation someone should make is that most of the old buildings have facades which perform poorly under earthquake conditions. They appear to dump onto the street below, fortunately this time not killing the people below because they were all in bed.

    At another time of day we could be looking at a different story. True NZ has good policies in place but lessons can always be learnt.

    I have many friends in Christchurch and am as glad as anyone there have been no deaths.

    September 4, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  14. LOGAN

    How things would have happened in Haiti if the government wasn't so corrupt and actually put some effort into enforcing building codes

    September 4, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Kevin

    I think that inexpensive buildings can be built that could cause fewer deaths in an earthquake. Maybe a small reinforced area inside for the family to retreat to, earthquakes are usually under 5 minutes. Just a national campaign to teach citizens what to do would save lives. Something can be done.

    September 4, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Roly

      1) In a big earthquake, it'll be shaking so violently that you won't be able to move to the reinforced zone.
      2) NZ already has a national disaster education programme in schools called 'What's the Plan Stan"

      September 5, 2010 at 6:07 am | Report abuse |
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