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The Cycle of Tragedy and Lack of Building Codes Continues – Haiti

January 13th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The earthquake tragedy in Haiti is a reminder of what can happen when there are no building codes or the existing ones aren’t enforced, when there are no building inspectors or a lack of oversight. The sight of collapsed schools, government buildings and residences is heartbreaking. I recently had a call from an inspector who said that his local jurisdiction was considering writing its own code instead of following the IBC because contractors were complaining that it cost too much to build following the IBC. Given the economic circumstances, they wanted a “less strict” code. Every time we sacrifice safety for monetary gain we are hoping that disaster doesn’t strike and reveal the dark side of less restrictive enforcement. Poorer countries lack the luxury of regulation and we can understand how things like this happen but we shouldn’t forget our homegrown tragedies like the collapse of the Hyatt walkway in Kansas City. We keep making the same mistakes because we forget what history teaches us. What happened in Hait is not a surprise. Newspapers recounted the collapse of schools in Haiti in 2008 due to poor construction. In 2007 the Department of Sustainable Development of the Organization of American States was approached about working to bring about a national building code in Haiti. You can read more about this problem at http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/americas/01/12/haiti.earthquake.infrastructure/index.html or watch Earthquake in Haiti.

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  1. Jeff Mills
    January 14th, 2010 at 00:45 | #1

    Hi Linda:

    I am a practicing structural engineer. It is common in my practice to hear complaints about the code. However, the actual cost of seismically sound structures is very reasonable considering the human toll in seismic events.

    I live in a portion of Alaska where there is no code enforcement in the structural area and no code enforcement whatsoever in the residential sector.

    We live on the Kenai Peninsula, one of the most seismically active places on the earth. The only way to get code enforcement is through the legislative process. However, there is no political will to do so. the main reason is sheer ignorance and indifference.

  2. January 14th, 2010 at 07:11 | #2

    I remember on our trip to Alaska seeing the aftermath of the huge earthquake that hit the region when I was a little girl. You are so right about the cost being reasonable considering the loss of life. That’s why courts usually will allow local jurisdictions to insist on modern safety improvements in existing structures and not grandfather them in despite the cost. Sometimes our rugged individualism works against the good of the whole.

  3. Larry C
    February 26th, 2010 at 09:44 | #3

    You are right about building codes, but Kansas City was a poor example. Problem there was a design that was impractical to build. The contractors modifaction to make the design “buildable” caused an increase in the stress on a structural joint that was missed in the review of the modification. It was not a building code error.

    Big issue to me is what do we do with “failed states”? Haiti should be the poster child here. To dump money into a failed state is like building on a foundation of mud. But the UN and everyone else has no provision for dealing with failed states.

  4. Mark Gilligan
    May 5th, 2010 at 22:50 | #4

    The jurisdiction considering writing there own code does not appreciate the amount of effort involved. They likely cannot aford the effort. In addition homegrown building codes such as the NYC Building code, which may still be in effect, can result in greater construction costs.

    There will always be some contractors that will complain about the costs but in my observation they inevitably do not understand the reasons for the code provisions. More importantly building codes are not to make the contractor happy but rather to protect the public.

    After a code has been adopted the real challange is consistent professional enforcement. Part of the problem with moment frames that was observed after the Northridge earthquake in LA was poor weld inspection practices and poor compliance with the welding code.

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