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. portmattlo

    this article is completely uninteresting so i thought i'd type my response to the chris klein article here, since the chris klein article only allows facebook users to comment, for some reason.

    i think klein will turn it around. he's pretty obviously a decent guy, and he doesn't seem like a full blown alcoholic. that said, a second DUI offense at .24 bal is kinda disturbing. no question he was a danger on the roads last night.

    so the verdict is...from a rehabilitation standpoint ninety six hours in jail will work with klein. he'll turn it around, beat his problem – if it even is a problem – and get back to churning out horrid movies. but if this was someone else, a person less good, i'd be very, very disturbed about the leniency of this sentence.

    September 4, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Merridith

      We in New Zealand really appreciate your empathy. Responding to some hollywood tabloid here is really disrespectful.

      September 5, 2010 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
  2. peter mills

    There is no excuse for the Haitian's not to be in the same, relatively "comfortable" situation that the New Zealanders.It all comes down to forward planning.The people are the ones who put corrupt polticians into pwer, in Haiti and many of the majority African countries, because they are to slack to give themselves an education, they are always waiting to be given their daily needs.Example, Ghana in Africa received independance just over 50 yrs ago, Ghana is worse off now than 50yrs ago.Malaysia received independance just over 50 yrs ago, Malaysia is a thriving economy.So all the bleeding hearts who want to "molly coddle" Haiti and similar blck run countries, you are not doing these people any favours, you are encouraging them not to get off their backsides and make a change for their own good

    September 4, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Scotty

    Looking at some some of the comments makes me happy I come from a society that's bright enough to put end-of-the-world conspiracies and praise jebus theories to one side and get on with what needs to be done. Our whole country is on the edge of a tectonic plate and is part of the Pacific rim of fire, we've long known that we're due for a big one. It's not devine will or a cataclysmic event, it's just the earth doing its thing.

    We don't need donations, we don't want handouts, we just want to get on with what needs done. We want to help our neighbours, our family and our friends without any hassles, and we don't need an aid group to tell us how to do it.

    It humbling to see the messages of support from around the world, and thanks to everyone who has shown concern, but don't worry, we're going to be fine.

    September 4, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • ChanNem

      Spoken like a true kiwi – high five!

      September 5, 2010 at 1:40 am | Report abuse |
  4. Andy

    Glad it's not too serious!!!!

    – A

    September 4, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tracy Thompsn

    This it total rubbish. I am a Californian that lives in NZ now an the building standards here are an absolute joke. The only reason this wasn't worse is there are no elevated roadways and no tall buildings. yes the city councils are supposed to impose strict building standards, but there aren't enough inspectors and those that are here are frequently paid of by contractors. I have built homes in CA and watched them being bulit here. Consequently, the only home I would buy in NZ is what they call a character home, as these are old, hard timber homes that were built by true craftsmen. My wife and I will not buy a Kiwi home for this very reason.

    So don't believe the BS that the lack of damage was due to good building standards.

    September 4, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Iain

      I would advise readers to not give this response any credit. As an architect working very closely with the council and some of the world's best engineers here in Christchurch it is just not true. Give credit where it is due, buildings built under the current building code are largely unaffected after what was, believe me, an incredible shaking. (This felt like a heart attack in comparisson with previous earthquake experiences which now seem like taking your pulse!). I have seen engineer's drawings here and in the UK. The difference is like chalk and cheese. In NZ I have seen every reinforcing bar drawn in 3D, almost incredible works of art in themselves. Sure we will have a good long look at where there are failures (we will have a good long look at old chimneys and old brick facades for instance) and give thanks for the timing of the earthquake but the fact is that all the tall buildings (yes we do have some) are not damaged. That is not an accident!

      September 4, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jake

      Tracy you hit the nail on the head!

      September 4, 2010 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Debbie

      Timing had a part, no-one was around as it was the wee hours of the morning but my new house built 5 years ago to NZ Building standard is in perfect condition. Of all my friends and family the only things that seem to have been damaged is chimneys. All the properties that seem to have fallen apart are most definitely the older ones from before the regulations. Tracey – you have no idea what you are talking about. The the men who issue our building resource consents – thanks

      And to all those expressing their sympathy – thanks also. Maybe there was no lives lost but there most def was a lot of trauma and fear

      September 5, 2010 at 4:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      Tracy you are completely wrong. Christchurch has many high rise buildings and they have survived with hardly a scratch on them due to the high design standards. There is strong regulation during building with multiple inspections. New Zealand rates as a country rates as one of the lowest corruption levels in the world. The United States is the home of urban sprawl and spec housing of low quality. I have lived in both the US and New Zealand and work in the building industry.

      September 5, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rori

      Well go back to CA then or take a minute to think on how lucky you are to be living in a decent country like New Zealand.

      September 6, 2010 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Brook

      Thanks for the encouragement and support. Perhaps you should stay in your yank drama land and leave us to it...with out support groups and counselors to help us tie our shoe laces.

      September 6, 2010 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
    • CSM

      Look, the standards are incredible high in terms of structure, but it certainly doesn't mean the finishing is going to be up to that standard. Look at the masses of cheap nasty pre fabricated houses on the North Shore of Auckland. Are they structurally sound – yes. Are the insulated and comfortable to live in – no.

      September 6, 2010 at 12:58 am | Report abuse |
  6. Matthew Watson

    fyi – cost of the earthquake in chch – billions, cost of going to hospital after getting injured in the earthquake – $0 🙂

    We pay taxes of around 50% (payroll tax, sales tax, excise tax (tabacco etc), Accident Compensation (ACC), business tax) but at least we get some services in return 🙂

    September 4, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Battleneter

    I live in Christchurch and thankfully my home is around 20 years old and is unscathed, power back on after 10 hours off, water never went off. Our suburb like most of the newer ones "looks" pretty good.

    CHCH and the rest of NZ has very high building standards, AND many of the old heritage buildings have been retrofitted with earthquake proofing and they are the ones that faired much better. Its a ongoing slow specialised job, you cant click your fingers have expect the specialised workforce to have this done in a few years without doing a hatchet job.

    Have to say the earthquake really did feel like a 7.1, you have to live through one to appreciate the force, and then to see the city largely standing does make me appreciate living here in such a large earthquake.

    September 4, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. doofus

    I grew up on a farm in an earthquake-prone area. When the Big One struck twenty years ago, a lot of modern homes were irreparably damaged. The weatherboard house my grandfather built had been placed onto a grid of large pumous boulders , their tops levelled, rather than on piles (and yes, there was no 8 wire involved).It rocked and rolled, then resettled comfortably onto the lawn (which is now wavy, rather than flat).

    September 4, 2010 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jake

    As I sit in a subsiding New Zealand house, I wonder has the Victoria University architect ever visited non third world countries? Seriously, the building quality is lacking and council inspection has lead to tens of thousands of the homes leaking. So, the 'strict' code came into effect 2004 as a result of incompetent local government and shoddy fly by night builders. As with all socialist countries over regulation doesn't generate effective outcomes, rather longer lines and more handouts. The lack of population is the only thing that saved Christchurch from being leveled. Jake

    September 4, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimmy

      The leaky homes issue has nothing to do with the structural design and earthquake resistance of NZ's buildings. Leaky homes are caused by poor weather tightness due to ineffective detailing of a buildings rain screen allowing water to build up inside a timber structure and rot it. If you look at most of the buildings effected by the quake you will note that there are few, if any that have been flattened. Whilst some buildings may no longer be inhabitable the building code has actually worked as it is designed to prevent loss of life in an earthquake of a large magnitude by preventing entire building collapse during the quake, which is exactly what has happened in this case.

      September 4, 2010 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jake

      Jimmy, I'm illustrating point that there is a general lack in quality and adherence to the standard otherwise professed by the Vic academic.

      September 4, 2010 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert O'Callahan

      "Leaky" buildings were built after the building code was relaxed to allow them. Later the code was tightened up again, and homes built after that no longer leak. The leaky buildings crisis was caused by insufficient regulation.

      September 5, 2010 at 6:38 am | Report abuse |
  10. Jake

    Can the Kiwis stop patting themselves on the back : ) You've done well when compared to other island nations.

    September 4, 2010 at 9:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Davo

      LOL. Well there is a largish island to the west that might do as well.

      September 5, 2010 at 1:41 am | Report abuse |
  11. Kenny

    This is a safe place to live.... with some quality guarantee.

    September 5, 2010 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  12. Mary J

    Sometimes a person can become so stressed that he or she just "snaps." There's no need in passing judgment upon this guy. We don't know his situation. He could have been severely stressed out or have some sort of mental illness. I'm glad the guy is home safe. I hope he's able to receive counseling.

    September 5, 2010 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
  13. Bea

    Can't say that I would feel comfortable telling people not to donate when it's not me that has lost my home.

    Although the government has turned down assistance from a public perspective, there are certainly individuals who have lost their homes and belongings and there will certainly be some hardship while they are trying to get back on their feet. Earthquake Commission insurance cover applies to those who have homeowners insurance, not to the 5% or so who don't – and of course it will all take a while to actually happen. Christchurch City Council will be opening a mayoral relief fund – check their website over the next few days for how to contribute. Charitable organisations will also be establishing relief funds.

    September 5, 2010 at 6:44 am | Report abuse |
  14. Jim

    About 40 years ago Harold Camping published a book called Adam When? laying out a timeline with all the evidence from the bible. 4990 BC was established as the date of the Noachian flood. It has withstood the test of time and cannot be disputed with biblical or credible secular scientific evidence. In the early 90's he published another book called 1994? where he proposed the possibility of Christ's return. He also indicated 2011 was a possibility. Quite astounding evidence(from the bible) was produced a couple of years ago.

    "For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." 2Pet3:5-8

    The context in 2Peter is clear. God is also clearly emphasizing the importance of verse 8 by telling us not to be ignorant of this one thing concerning the first destruction of the world and the final destruction. The relationship between one day and a thousand years is further emphasized by repeating it in the same verse.

    "For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth." Gen 7:4
    Gen 7:11 "in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month". This is May 21 when converted to the gregorian calendar.

    When converting from the biblical calendar to our modern day Gregorian calendar, the date of the first destruction of the world was May 21, 4990 BC. This is precisely 7,000 years, to the very day, prior to May 21, 2011. Keep in mind, this evidence was first submitted over 15 years after the possibility of May 21, 2011 was introduced.

    There is not one instance in the bible where God executes judgment without a so-called "date setter" involved.
    The only biblical argument against this is. Matt 24:36, Mark 13:32, and Acts 1:7. The remainder of the bible is ignored by most.

    “When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are: Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.” Luke 13:25-28

    If a person has the capability to put their personal feelings aside(for at least a moment). Please read the verses above. There will be a group of people(during judgment day) who have at least some understanding of the bible who will be very upset. Now read another version concerning the return of Christ:

    “For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them” 1Thes5:3

    Look at this logically and reasonably. This same group of people(prior to their destruction) will be saying “Peace and Safety”!

    Ask yourself, are the so-called “Camping followers” saying “peace and safety” or are those who buy into the doctrines developed by the church saying “peace and safety”?

    There is one crystal clear answer to this question. It is alarming and it is frightening. However, it is the Word of God.

    September 5, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Eric(NZ)

    Christchurch resident here. Just want to say thanks for all the good wishes. We've come out of this OK, no loss of life. We don't need any financial help to fix it all but we're also not going to be stupid enough to say 'no' to offers. Any financial aid offered though should really go somewhere who really needs it.

    Its is great that an incident like this can provoke such widespread discussion on such a variety of topics all somehow connected by an earthquake in a tiny country in the South Pacific. Keep it up and maybe one day the real 'powers that be' will take notice... or even better: the people in this discussion become those 'powers that be'. In the meantime come visit, we'd love to have you.

    September 5, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
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