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Dangerous Architecture

Dangerous Developments in Architectural Design

In the pursuit of beauty in the design of their buildings some architects are taking risks by compromising the strength of the buildings they design. Gradually, as time goes on and disasters have not occurred, complacency can set in and the compromises they make between beauty and strength become more and more audacious. Let us look at how architects can inadvertently progress into designing dangerous buildings.

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An Example of Dangerous Evolution

Let us start off with the example of the annual British Fastnet Race. Every second year an ocean going yacht race is held in Britain. After champagne on the jetty the fleet sets off from Cowes in the Isle of White sailing West South West down the English Channel to Land's End at the South Western tip of England, from here they sail North West heading out into the Atlantic ocean. Eventually they come to a remote lump of rock off South West Ireland called the Fastnet Rock. The fleet rounds the rock before retracing the route back to Land's End and up the English Channel finishing in Plymouth.

This is the Fastnet Race, very tough and one of the world's classic ocean going yacht races. It has been sailed since 1925 however in 1979 the Fastnet race suffered a major disaster. Out in the Atlantic (which incidentally is not known for its millpond like qualities) the fleet was hit by a violent storm with force 11 gales and 10 to 15 metre waves (only one category less than a hurricane). That is quite big you know, in fact it is more than enough to take the skin off aunt Dotty's rice pudding.

Emergency services and civilian vessels from around the west side of the English Channel were called in to aid what was Britain's largest rescue operation in peace-time involving naval ships, lifeboats, commercial boats, helicopters, 4,000 rescue personnel, 34,000 bits of string and 83,000 rubber bands. The final tally was 25 of the 306 boats taking part in the race were sunk or disabled and 15 lives were lost.

So why was it that a race that had been sailed since 1925 suddenly suffered such a disaster? One or two people (in fact quite a few) wanted to know and so, as is usually the case an enquiry was held. It was all put down to "evolution".

You see racing boats are designed to exacting specifications which are a balance between weight (the lighter the boat the faster it will go) and strength (the rougher the sea the stronger it needs to be). Over many years the race had enjoyed calm seas and the boat designers had been lulled into a false sense of security. Each year a bit more weight was shaved off to give more speed but this progressively reduced boat strength. Eventually, as night follows day, the inevitable happened and the fleet hit a serious storm and many of the boats simply weren't strong enough to cope with a full blown Atlantic storm. If people keep getting away with something there is a tendency to become complacent and forget what it was they got away with in the first place. The longer they get away with it the worse it gets.

I suspect the same thing is happening in Bali with building design.

Many buildings in Bali will not resist earthquakes

I constantly see cases of "evolving" building design that is so preoccupied with appearance that it has forgotten some basic factors of engineering most particularly in respecting the risk of earthquakes.

This evolving "design" is probably due to architects who want to design buildings that are not hindered by such mundane concerns as structural strength. If you look at older buildings you will find structural columns and beams are visible in walls and ceilings.These days architects want to design buildings with flush walls and ceilings and to do this they are changing the shape of the columns and beams they use.

Many modern building structures in Bali are not designed to withstand earthquakes

Building Columns Should Be Properly Designed

In the past a typical main structural column was likely to be 30 cms by 30 cms square. These days such a column is more likely to be a wide but somewhat skinny 15cms by 50cms so it can be buried in a 15 cm thick wall and hidden from view.

When these wide skinny columns are used there are couple of important factors we need to keep in mind. Firstly a square column has equal strength in all directions whereas a wide skinny column is stronger in its wide direction but considerably weaker in its thinner direction therefore particular care must be taken in how a building is designed. Secondly when a column is only 15cms thick there is not a lot of margin for error and it is far more important that the size of the column, the quality of the concrete and the size and position of the steel within the column are correct (unfortunately this is not always a realistic expectation in Bali).

In short, using wide skinny columns and beams is OK as long as they are correctly designed and built to more exacting standards than more conventional design.

Generally speaking the standard of building in Indonesia is poor, a fact well demonstrated by the Padang experience, and so we can start to see that the evolution of building design is heading down a rocky road. How serious this is we will find out one day when "the big one" hits.

News of the earthquake in Haiti was another reminder of what happened in Padang only a few short weeks before. In Haiti 2 factors contributed to the horrendous loss of life now being quoted as up to 200,000 people. Firstly this was a large earthquake of 7.2 which was centred only 15 kilometres from the centre of the capital city. In earthquake terms this was a direct hit. The second is that, judging from the television images, many buildings were built of concrete which, based on the very poor state of Haiti, we could assume would not have had sufficient steel in the structures. It is interesting to note that once again wooden structures fared much better than the concrete ones.

In Padang the technical experts declared that many buildings fell down (killing hundreds of people) because buildings were not built to Indonesian design standards. Yes Indonesia has a comprehensive set of standards for building design, construction, plumbing and electrical installations, sadly the average developer and builder have little if any knowledge of these standards. They depend on their technical experts, structural engineers and electrical and plumbing installers, to make sure that Indonesian standards are met.

A Qualified Architect is Not a Structural Engineer

It is also very important to remember that an architect is not a structural engineer. In Bali many houses and villas are being built by architects who are not only designing the buildings but also engaging the contractors to carry out the construction. It is not uncommon to find in such situations that the architect does not visit the site often enough leaving the contractor a free reign to cut corners and reduce his costs.

I recently met one of Bali's most renowned architects who was bemoaning this situation saying that architects should stick within their area of expertise, they should not be designing structures nor should they be supervising construction.

The fact is that architects and builders, unless they are also qualified structural engineers (some architects are), simply do not have the technical knowledge to make sure a building is designed to be structurally sound and to withstand earthquakes. This is particularly important when using these slimmer columns and beams.

How to Make Sure Your Building Will Withstand An Earthquake

The lesson is simple, if you want to survive in an earthquake make sure the building you are in is structurally sound. If you are building make sure a structural engineer has designed the structure and inspects during construction, if you intend to buy or rent a property make sure a structural engineer has inspected the building first.

So what can you do to protect yourself if you are building ?

  1. Look at the drawings and check that a structural engineer has designed, or at least checked, the structure and has signed off on the drawings thereby accepting responsibility.
  2. Ask questions regarding the foundations and structural design so you can understand where the most important aspects of the building are.
  3. Make sure that during the construction the building is regularly inspected, particularly when the structure is being built, by people who understand about the specifications and placement of steel and about concrete mixes and strengths.
  4. If this is all rather daunting for you don't worry, find an independent expert to represent you. He/she can check all the documents and drawings and check the building during the construction phase.

Natural Selection and Building Design

Coming back to the concept of evolution we perhaps should remember that the whole notion of evolution is, of course, somewhat inextricably linked with a rather unavoidable concept - that of natural selection. A bit of bad evolution, like a camel without a hump, a lion with no teeth or a real estate agent with a bad stutter, has a way of being wiped out, naturally of course. Unfortunately in this case it is the person living in the building and not the person who built it that gets naturally selected for removal from the gene pool.

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Copyright © Phil Wilson January 2010
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