Engineering for Disaster

March 16, 2010

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Recent earthquakes highlight the importance of disaster preparedness. Engineers, scientists, architects and designers are well positioned to develop the tools and technologies to save lives.

The series of severe earthquakes that recently struck Haiti and Chile have brought disaster preparation efforts to the forefront of safety concerns. Engineers and designers from around the world have sought ways to help the victims of these natural disasters, and their assistance is likely to be invaluable both in current relief efforts and future safety planning. Here we look at some of the emergency engineering innovations that can play a role in protecting people at home and abroad.

Engineering and construction standards constitute a major challenge in disaster preparedness, as some buildings in disaster-stricken areas may not be up to standards and certain regions may not have any structural standards at all. Adhering to building codes is vital for maintaining safe conditions, and these codes can be used as guiding principles in areas where requirements are lacking.

"A building code requires that a building or facility be located, designed and constructed so that any threat to life, health and welfare of its occupants and the public is minimized or prevented. Over and over again, the enforcement of effective building codes has had the greatest impact on the quality of construction and how structures will withstand the forces of nature," the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) explains.

Improving engineering and construction standards in the context of earthquake-resistance is likely to remain a continuing concern for government agencies. According to the latest annual report from the U.S. National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (August 2009), in fiscal year 2010, $38.3 million will be allocated to developing measures to reduce earthquake impacts on individuals, built environments and society at large. An additional $10.4 million will be devoted to improving earthquake resilience nationwide.

The breakthroughs spurred from these programs may contribute to global earthquake preparedness as new engineering advances are brought to bear on the widespread risk of earthquakes.

Materials remain an important concern in earthquake preparedness and resistance. Buildings constructed from substandard materials may not be able to withstand seismic shifts or other natural forces that undermine their integrity, leading to structural damage and often collapse.

"[T]he terrible testimony of an earthquake can still be seen in the piles of twisted metal and chunks of concrete — often all that is left of a region's buildings," the New York Times reports. "As a horrified public has seen in Chile and Haiti, most of the hundreds or thousands of victims were killed or left homeless because of poor construction materials and building methods."

To address this problem, several engineering and industry groups are attempting to create cost-effective materials solutions for disaster relief. However, an invulnerable structure is not necessarily a functional one, and concessions must often be made to balance building strength with the practical considerations of usability.

Steel materials are appealing as building resources due to their combination of strength and formability. Living Steel, a consortium of metals firms, has worked to introduce steel-frame houses in disaster areas, and has already applied its rebuilding approach following the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China.

"There are cheaper houses using traditional materials, but they won't have the same fit and finish and the engineering as these steel houses and, remember, they have been designed to withstand earthquakes in a way that houses built 30, 40, 50 years ago would not," Scott Chubbs, program director of Living Steel, told the New York Times.

Architects such as Joseph Bellomo have also begun using steel tubes to create compact, modular homes for Haiti that combine material durability with quick assembly and easy use. Employing a steel frame follows "the concept of an eggshell, where you only need the minimal amount of structure and still have something that is incredibly strong," Bellomo told the Architect's Newspaper Blog.

Emergency housing is another significant issue in disaster control efforts. After a major disaster, it is vital to provide shelter for victims left without homes or relief workers aiding in the recovery. The primary features for emergency shelters are the protection afforded the occupant, speed and ease of construction, durability and resilience against harsh environmental conditions.

According to's Wired Science blog, innovative structures such as the Hexayurt, a lightweight plywood building that costs only $100 and can withstand severe weather conditions, and the ShelterBox, a compact emergency aid unit that comes with a tent and survival equipment, are or soon will be put in use in Haiti and Chile.

These emergency designs are generally sturdier and longer-lasting than tents, which typically suffice for three months but are not suited for prolonged inhabitance. Industrial design magazine Core77 is also hosting a design challenge to find similar structures that could assist in the recovery and emergency relief efforts in disaster zones.


How Engineers and Designers Can Help Haiti

5 Advanced Designs in Emergency Architecture


The Importance of Building Codes Federal Emergency Management Agency, June 4, 2009

Annual Report of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program for Fiscal Year 2008 National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, August 2009

As Earthquakes Rattle Globe, Interest in Steel Rises by Richard Holledge The New York Times, March 11, 2010

Homes for Haiti by Lydia Lee The Architect's Newspaper Blog, Jan. 28, 2010

$100 DIY Shelter Could Help Homeless Haitians by Renee Davidson Wired Science (, Feb. 10, 2010

1 Hour Design Challenge: Emergency Shelters Core77, March 4, 2010

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