Why India is still ailing from Tremor / Quake Prone Buildings?

Opinions Dated:  April 28, 2015
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Earthquake Resistant Buildings, Source: indianexpress

In my humble opinion, this is the right time for such an article. Tremor / quake resistant building technologies are not anything new to the world (it is age old) - nor to India too. With the advancement of technology it is becoming more efficient - but there is no denial that quite an advanced level of technology does exist since the last several decades.

But why this is not adopted widely in India in tremor or quake prone regions / zones is a matter of serious thoughts. This is in spite of the Indian Government designating tremor or quake prone regions at varying scales like Zone-1, 2, etc. and has also made it mandatory that buildings shall be designed to resist tremor or quake for that particular zone. Though this may be implemented in Governments' own projects & by a few top notched promoters / builders (who are able to sell very expensive buildings) and also by some few individuals who have a deep pocket to meet out the expenses and who build without any budget limit, the common man still suffers.

But what happens with the rest of the people who are building in these types of zones? The first main reason is lack of awareness that tremor or quake resistant building technology does exist in India. But one could argue that this should not be the case because the govt. had made this mandatory and that building plans could not be sanctioned without showing tremor resistant structural designs. Well, in most instances these exist only on paper. The submitted plans for approval would show the tremor resistant structural designs but the actual construction done would not be conforming to the original structural designs. The owners themselves avoid it because they do not have enough faith in the tremor or

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resistant designs - because of their own ignorance. And in India in many cases there had never been constant monitoring of the constructions being done by the Govt authorities - whether they are being constructed in conformity with what had been submitted and got approved - this is a bitter fact which has to be digested. Same applies to tremor or quake resistant buildings too. The owners are not willing to spend a fortune on these types of structures - but again there is the element of ignorance. The extra cost to make it tremor or quake resistant would vary and depends on several factors. In many instances the cost increase may not be very prohibitive.

People who construct buildings (I mean owners) are not willing to explore enough to strike a solution to make economically viable tremor resistant construction. They simply imagine themselves that they could not afford such costs. At one point of time I had even interviewed a few people who lived in these types of tremor prone zones questioning them why they did not build tremor resistant buildings for their own homes. Their reply was that, that they could simply not afford such type of construction

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if God wished to destroy their region who could prevent it!! This is the kind of attitude which leads to many tremor prone buildings.

Another fact remains that even though India has enough technology and knowledge to do these type of construction, there are very few structural engineers who have through knowledge in this subject. Half-baked knowledge in this subject would just not do. This would only lead to prohibitive costs. And again, in cases where such knowledgeable engineers were available, lack of cooperation from the architects became stumbling blocks. The building mass has to be in such a way that it helps to reduce the cost of tremor resistant designs. This would involve lot of compromises in architectural designs. I am not saying all architects are like this. But there are a lot of them who do not wish to take the pains to come out with good designs in spite of the constraints imposed by the structural mass which would reduce the cost of construction. These people would rather go for more expensive designs saying that the buildings would look ugly - but the result would be that the owner does not want to spend that much of money and the owner compromises. The Indian general public living in these zones needs to be educated. And more structural consultants should become experts in this field.

Even though they are structural consultants, they too have to be creative enough to come out with structural designs which would conform with tremor resistance and at the same time would not be prohibitive in cost. I am not discussing about the various tremor resistant or quake resistant structural designs - as that would have to be a separate mega article by a structural consultant. I am only explaining here why it is not taking off here in India.

Now comes the most important points. India is a country which has lot of century old buildings / structures. And these old structures are present in tremor / quake prone zones also. What do we do about them? There are technologies available to strengthen them to tremor / quake resistant - but these are really frightfully expensive. People could not simply afford it. And we have very highly densely built area in many places - all the old cities have many buildings where there would be no side open spaces. There would be only front & rear open spaces. A whole block of an area would be a single building - i.e. when all the buildings touch each other without side open spaces in-between, the different structures in reality makes a single mass.

Now I shall pose you one question. If one person decides to pull down his own old building from this mass, and decides to construct a tremor / quake resistant building - when his neighbors retain their old buildings without any strengthening even after having now known that their region is a tremor prone region - and in an incidence of a major tremor or a even a medium level quake, when the neighbors' buildings collapses, what would happen to this single person's building even though he has built to resist the quake?

Neighbors' buildings falling on his building would create a calamity to his building too. When such a person realizes this beforehand, he would not spend on making it a tremor resistant structure. When everyone starts thinking like this, then, again the area is flooded with new buildings which would not resist tremors. This is what ails India in this aspect. It is the peoples' attitudes which have to change.

There is no need to write articles (IMHO) on how to make quake resistant buildings - hundreds are already there on the internet (if one googled enough) and also in the form of several technical books - easily available to the public. All these give high levels of awareness to a person who wishes to build. It should be left to the structural specialist and the architect to decide what is apt for a particular project.

It is the general masses living in these zones that have to be educated and a high level of awareness brought to them. Architects should show more creativity with their heart & soul to design good looking buildings in spite of the constraints required by such structural designs but at the same time not make it very prohibitive in cost. This is a moral obligation which every architect owes to the society.

We architects here in my region- down South of Tamil Nadu (not tremor prone) are already designing good looking buildings in spite of the Vaastu constraints ( in most of the cases it would  be Vaastu misinterpreted) imposed by the self-styled “experts” in Vaastu. If this could be done, then it could be done to tremor resistant constraints also.

In Nepal, runs a major fault line. We are now shockingly seeing what is happening there. But take California - a major fault line runs there also. But all the buildings are constructed to withstand to high levels of quakes - may be there would be some damages to the buildings - but they would not collapse and would be still repairable - and all the inmates safe. Same is the case with Japan too. Japan has densely constructed cities / towns. Still they are able to do it.

Let me summarize that it would not be Govt. norms which would make this happen (constructing quake resistant structures) - people here must make it happen - like they have done it in Japan and elsewhere. Let me once again stress that only in certain type of architectural designs, designing a tremor/quake resistant structure becomes prohibitively expensive. An architect with full knowledge of the behaviour of the structure (he need not possess the actual knowledge of working out the structure - which would be taken care of  by the structural engineer) - if he is creative enough, could come out with good looking structures as well with only some increase in cost.

And this idea has to be promoted through mass media which would reach the general public and make them aware of all these. This is totally lacking in India. Unless the awareness reaches the masses, it is not going to happen. And most importantly, old buildings need to be strengthened for quake resistance - if not, the rest of the people would also suffer.

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