Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It’s what’s on the inside that counts

Those interested in the architecture of an “earthquake-resilient” building have probably heard a similar theory. If a building is flexible, it will move but not break or fall down when shaken in an earthquake. It seems logical, right? In fact, I remember seeing old wooden structures in Japan that had survived hundreds of earthquakes. Rather than fall, they simply went with the flow, swayed a bit, then came back to stand as it had for centuries.

What I never saw in those building photos, however, were the insides.

Last week, I got the chance to take a peek inside. Not those lovely old Japanese structures, but more modern ones after the Santiago, Chile, quake. A specialist called to the site to make damage assessments showed astonishing images. Some structures were visibly broken and required extensive, expensive repairs after that whopping 8.8 magnitude shaker in February of 2010.

The most shocking photos came from those with no exterior damage at all. Large, modern beautiful buildings, some with huge glass fronts, had hardly a hint that it had been shaken – until you opened the front door.

It’s interesting that we know to earthquake-proof our shelves, TV’s cupboards, refrigerators and water heaters at home, yet we completely forget this where we work. In some of the specialist’s examples, the damage from some of these buildings’ interiors exceeded the cost of the building itself!

That hardly seems possible, but there it was. High-tech equipment – servers, mainframes, desktop computers, all kinds of specialized electronics –lay in ruins all of the floor. Drop ceilings literally dropped, spilling ceiling tiles and light fixtures everywhere. Water lines, now unhampered by any ceiling material, broke and continued to ruin what wasn’t already broken.

The three areas which seemed to cause the most damage was: 1) Lack of attaching equipment – even though the brackets were there! – or were cheap and easy to install – such as the straps to attach lap-top equipment. 2) The use of bolts that were too small, too weak for their purpose – he recommended at least 5/8-inch bolts, and 3) the widespread use of drop ceilings. Drop ceilings, while cheap and easy to install, universally caused damage everywhere they were used. His recommendation – stop using them. It will be cost effective in the long run to install hard ceilings instead.

So, go to work, your mall, your favorite store and look around. If things started to shake, what would be left standing? Hopefully, YOU, because objects stayed in place, where they should. And you could walk out to tell about it.

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