Yes. Building Codes.

by Little Miss Attila on March 11, 2011

They should be flexible for some things, such as providing creative solutions to issues like restroom access, parking, and accommodating the disabled. (I’m speaking here mostly of remodeling, rather than building, from scratch, something that’s less-than-ideal in any of these areas; I like to preserve old structures whenever possible, even if they have a narrow staircase here or there.)

But in earthquake zones, such as California and Japan, building departments are properly very strict in terms of structural soundness. One hopes that Japan is living up to its reputation for state-of-the-art earthquake preparedness. I know people like to make the comparison of the Kobe quake with the Northridge quake, but that isn’t fair–Kobe was larger, and shallower. (Though of course Northridge travelled faster, and managed to devastate another side of the Santa Monica mountains so badly that it almost had, in effect, a second epicenter.)

Here’s an article about how Kobe and Northridge affected the philsophies behind making structures earthquake-resistant. The bottom line–so to speak–was that in 1994-5 engineers recognized that we couldn’t simply save lives and let the local economies rebuild themselves on the fly: replacing tens of thousands–or hundreds of thousands–of buildings was too much to absorb without drastically affecting other needed services.

There isn’t a place on the planet, though, that can absorb an 8.9 such as we had last night, without huge casualty levels. Nowhere. We can be “thankful” that it happened in a more enlightened, wealthy, earthquake-savvy locale, but it still represents massive suffering.

Yet I have a caveat here: the places that have the hardest time handling even medium-bad earthquakes are the ones that are economically underdeveloped. Well-off people love picturesque vacation spots, but they don’t like to contemplate what happens when the populations there are subjected to natural disasters.

We need building codes that take into account the risks of various natural disasters for each area. But what we also need, worldwide, is more economic development, so that what is built is built well.

We may not be able to guard against a freakishly big event like “the big one” in Japan, but we can begin to harden areas such as Haiti, where even minimal building standards and halfway decent infrastructure would have hardened the island against Mother Nature’s wrath.

The only way I know to do that is through rule of law, democracy, and lavish doses of capitalism.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers. Look around a bit, why don’t you?

Also, from Glenn’s link, a little something for Ponce.

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Instapundit » Blog Archive » HOLDING UP WELL IN JAPAN’S EARTHQUAKE TRAGEDY: Building Codes. Meanwhile, Little Miss Attila on …
March 12, 2011 at 3:24 pm

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Foxfier March 11, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Indonesia, months after the tsunami: anything not up in the hills was still slap-dash– thankfully the beach bar area (about a half mile deep from the beach) was mostly three-cement-walls-and-plywood construction. Maybe one in twenty were functional, even with a week’s notice that several thousand sailors and Marines would be coming with a strong desire to get drunk. Phonelines were still iffy.

Japan, less than a day after the tsunami: they’re still having aftershocks and yet there’s action to try to get folks out, even before you consider the US military help.


Leah March 11, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Just watched Anthony Bourdains visit to Haiti, still wondering why he went there to shoot a show. Japan has suffered a terrible tragedy and will rebuild. Third world countries – no not so much.
BTW one of the issues that make the West so successful is land ownership and a very clear way to find out who owns what and who can sell what. Sort of a cornerstone of capitalism – ownership.


Bloodaxe March 12, 2011 at 9:24 am

The earthquake in Japan was so powerful that even the strongest structures were damaged. But Japan is highly advanced with plenty of equipment and capable people. They will rebuild quickly and can do it without any help from us.
Haiti is a perpetual basket case. It will never change.


Foxfier March 12, 2011 at 10:03 am

Found out today that not a single building in Tokyo went down.

That’s bloody impressive.


anonymous March 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Building codes saved lives.

Yeah capitalism!


Calvin Dodge March 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm

“But what we also need, worldwide, is more economic development, so that what is built is built well. ”

To paraphrase “Lucifer’s Hammer”: “A civilization has the buildings that it can afford”

Note to “anonymous”: if “capitalism” hadn’t increased the standard of living so much in the last 150-200 years, then nobody could afford the sorts of structures which can resist such earthquakes, and Japan would look more like Haiti did after its recent earthquake.


peter March 12, 2011 at 8:59 pm

I just finished a 2 year journey owner-building a house in a city known for it’s byzantine codes. And I can tell you that another reason building codes are good is because they provide a way for basically sound structures to be built without requiring engineering. By setting standards, they also allow those in the industry as well as home buyers to have a good idea of what to expect about the quality of a building.

The only problem with building codes we really have is when those writing the codes keep upping the ante beyond the point of diminishing returns. These additional requirements add costs without providing much real benefit in terms of quality and safety. This is especially true of the newer energy codes.


Cynthia Yockey, A Conservative Lesbian March 12, 2011 at 9:37 pm

I disagree with you about flexibility for remodeling for wheelchair access beyond what’s already built into the ADA. After 19 years of pushing my late life-partner around in her wheelchair, I assure you that “flexibility” results in spaces that are unusable, inaccessible or dangerous–but still labeled as “wheelchair accessible” to lure in the trusting and unsuspecting. Those words are defined by regulations and there are enough surprises already in how they get implemented–the most common being the contractor who doesn’t know the width of a doorway has to be 34 inches for the clearance between the jamb and the face of the door to be the regulation 32 inches wide. This results in doorways with 30 inches or less of clearance–for someone who is propelling their wheelchair independently, this means scraped or bruised knuckles, since a reasonably slim person with a seat width of 18-20 inches will have a wheelchair that is 28-to-30 inches wide, depending on how much the wheels are canted and including the rings installed on the wheels that allow them to self-propel the wheelchair.


ponce March 13, 2011 at 3:26 am

“Also, from Glenn’s link, a little something for Ponce.”

Yes, there used to be plenty of Republicans who recognized the necessity of having the government decide things like what design features buildings built in earthquake zones required.

Those Republicans are mostly dead or Democrats now…


Joseph Somsel March 13, 2011 at 10:24 am

Like so many function of a republican government for a free people, building codes that contribute to society’s health and wealth are important BUT….. they require vigilance and self-discipline. They are rapidly becoming the tool of the Left in remaking society to THEIR liking at the expense of your personal liberties.

From Rand Paul’s rant on toilet flushing capacity to lighting fixtures to remote-controlled thermostats, building codes are now seen as an instrument of tyranny and not enlightened self-interest.

The answer is citizens keeping an eye on the technocratic processes the generate and enforce building codes. A boring job, but we ignore it at our peril. Citizens can intercede in the process but it ain’t easy. Best to make examples of those officials who overstep their bounds. For one example, I’ve long campaigned for the abolishment of the California Energy Commission which seems to do NOTHING for their $600 million a year budget but get into citizens’ private affairs.


Cynthia Yockey, A Conservative Lesbian March 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Thanks for your e-mail asking me how the 19th Street Lounge in Washington, D.C., where we attended Andrew Breitbart’s party for GOProud last month during CPAC, should be modified for wheelchair access. Although it is a public accommodation under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, it was built before 1992 and therefore was not subject to any regulations requiring design for wheelchair access when it was built. Title III only requires renovations to public accommodations that are “readily achievable,” which it defines as “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.” Renovations in that space would not be readily achievable.

One man in a wheelchair DID attend and was in the room where Sophie B. Hawkins sang, although I think he arrived after her set. He was an amputee who had lost both legs near the hip and I saw his wheelchair being handed down the stairs leading to that room on the second story. I chatted with him because people in wheelchairs rivet my attention and so do their wheelchairs because I had to work with all the different kinds of wheelchairs Margaret needed as her paralysis from her MS progressed. He had a low-back sporty wheelchair with very raked wheels and I asked him whether he plays murderball, which is an aggressive form of basketball that quadriplegics play using wheelchairs like his. He didn’t, and I asked him about getting up the stairs because being carried, in or out of your wheelchair, is NOT wheelchair access because you aren’t moving independently, it’s a huge indignity, it’s embarrassing AND it’s freaking dangerous and frightening because you can be dropped or people will grab parts of your wheelchair that will pull off easily, resulting in, see above: getting dropped. However, he told me he could get up and down stairs on his own lifting himself a step at at time and his friends carried his wheelchair. I’m just mentioning that in case you saw him.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how he would have used the tiny men’s room — I expect he would have needed to be in his wheelchair to use a toilet and his wheelchair would never fit through the doorway. But he could have done it if his wheelchair had quick-release wheels, so his friends would have had to take off the wheels and reassemble the wheelchair inside the men’s room, then repeat the process to get the wheelchair out — although I doubt that men’s room had enough clear floorspace for the wheelchair. Or maybe he lucked out and the urinal went all the way to the floor. I doubt he had a catheter bag since he wasn’t paralyzed and therefore had bladder control. What? TMI?


anonymous March 15, 2011 at 5:21 am

March 15, 2011
ANOTHER LAME EFFORT to score political points off the Japanese earthquake.
Posted by Glenn Reynolds at 12:31 am


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