Great Ideas: Earthquake-Safe(r) Buildings

Two years ago, a powerful earthquake struck Haiti, crushing untold thousands of people who were trapped inside collapsed buildings.

Haiti Earthquake

Photo: Port-au-Prince, courtesy of the UN Development Programme

Death toll estimates vary widely—from in the tens of thousands to more than 300,000—as homes, apartment buildings, schools, prisons, and even hospitals pancaked into rubble, leaving Port-au-Prince a post-apocalyptic ruin. The next day, President René Préval told the New York Times that he had no idea where he would sleep.

Civil engineer Elizabeth Hausler believes that most of those people didn’t have to die, and that millions of people did not have to lose their homes.

Hausler, via

But wait: an earthquake is a natural disaster, right? Sure, says Hausler. But earthquake death tolls are man-made tragedies. “Earthquakes don’t kill people,” she says. “Poorly build buildings do.”

Hausler learned to build things working summers with her dad, a skilled brickmason. And then she started building a wholly unique expertise—armed with a PhD in civil engineering, she headed to Gujarat as a Fulbright Scholar to help rebuild after a massive quake. And she realized that she could help prevent thousands of needless deaths by teaching people to build earthquake resistant homes.

Easier said than done, of course. But with Build Change, a nonprofit she launched to help teach government officials, contractors, and homeowners how to build structures that are more likely to withstand earthquakes, Hausler has made it her mission to make temblors less deadly in places like Haiti, Gujarat, and Sichuan.

Haiti Earthquake

Collapsed hotel, Haiti, via UN Dev. Programme

My friend and colleague Peter Aronson talked with Hausler late last year about her work, for his excellent new podcast and blog series, called Housing Revolution. I happily agreed to help with the series (although most of the work, and the idea itself, are Peter’s). It’s been thrilling to learn about the innovative work going on in a field to which I’d honestly never given much thought: making housing safer, more sustainable, and affordable to inhabitants of the developing world’s sprawling slums.

Hausler especially fascinated me: here’s a person who looked at a problem the rest of the world viewed as unavoidable—high death tolls in earthquake-prone areas—and assigned herself the task of solving it, one building at a time. Just knowing about a person like this, quietly doing the hard work of making a few corners of the planet better, makes me feel hopeful that the world has more human capital to offer than the impotent bozos who tend to hog the spotlight.

I encourage you to take 20 minutes and listen to the podcast interview with Hausler. I predict that you, too, will be utterly fascinated.

Also, check out this fascinating infographic from National Geographic that details earthquake fatalities in various quake zones and describes simple building methods that make houses stronger (like making windows smaller and using straw bales to build walls). Great stuff.

Hear the podcast: How to Build Earthquake-Resistant Houses on a Tight Budget

Related post: Where are 7 billion people going to live?

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