Architects debate safety practices

A symposium was held at the School of Architecture this weekend to discuss the lack of coherent building regulations in developing countries.
A symposium was held at the School of Architecture this weekend to discuss the lack of coherent building regulations in developing countries. Photo by Joyce Xi.

On Dec. 22, 2003, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck a populated area in central California and killed two people. Four days later, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck Bam, Iran. But that time, the death toll was 30,000.

This kind of disparity was the subject of “Catastrophe and Consequence: The Campaign for Safe Buildings,” a symposium held at the Yale School of Architecture on Friday and Saturday. Co-sponsored by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation and the Architecture School, the symposium brought together 24 speakers from fields as diverse as architecture, engineering, insurance and law to discuss building safety in developing countries and to propose remedies for unsafe building practices.

The Rubin Foundation approached the school about a year ago with the idea for the symposium, Architecture School Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 said. Rubin Foundation Executive Director Bruce Payne GRD ’65 and architect Stephen Forneris, the symposium’s co-organizers, said they hoped the symposium would publicize and provide feedback on their proposed solution to the lack of building codes in developing nations: a non-governmental organization to act as an international building department.

“They were, I believe rightly, concerned about how architects are building more and more in the non-Western part of the world,” Stern said. “There are almost no rules about how to build safely in these countries that are just emerging.”

The lack of coherent building codes in many developing nations is the primary cause of unsafe building practices, Forneris said. In many countries where multinational companies are erecting complex structures, he said, local governments lack the capacity to properly regulate construction.

The NGO, which has yet to be named, would have the power to apply building regulations to construction projects, perform periodic inspections and issue certifications to safe buildings, Forneris said. Since it will operate in countries that have established systems of contract law, which enforce agreements, non-compliance with the NGO’s building code could result in stalled loans or insurance, Payne said.

“This organization will not be called on by governments, rather contractually by [companies planning to build],” Forneris said. “We’re hoping that by putting some pressure on banks and financial companies, they’ll give lending preferences to companies that will build correctly.”

Payne said he predicts the NGO will have appoint a board of directors and establish a clear structure of authority within six months, at which point the board will decide where the NGO will place its first experimental branches. Payne and Forneris are in the process of raising $5 million for the first phase of the project, which Payne said he expects will include founding locations in Guayaquil, Ecuador and Bogotá, Colombia.

But not all the speakers present at the symposium agreed with the organizers’ position. Mary Comerio, an internationally recognized expert on disaster recovery and professor of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley, expressed skepticism about Forneris and Payne’s proposed NGO.

“There are some drawbacks to the concept of NGOs providing a service that is traditionally the responsibility of government,” Comerio said. “[Critiques that] people need to elect and hold their governments responsible and that the presence of an NGO allows locals to abdicate responsibility could certainly apply to building regulation.”

The symposium’s speakers discussed a variety of alternative strategies for promoting building safety, which ranged from retrofitting existing buildings with extra support systems, campaigns for public awareness, education efforts and assistance to poorer citizens in securing land titles.

Karl Kim, the executive director of Hawaii’s National Disaster Preparedness Training Center, spoke Friday and advocated for the incorporation of indigenous building practices, many of which have proven resilient in disaster-prone areas. Drew Azzara and David deCourcy of the International Code Council, which sets building regulations globally, emphasized that codes are not enough. Instead, they said they favor local regulatory systems and increased interaction with community members to instill the principles of building safety.

Kim said it is important to foster an environment of community learning when it comes to reaching the goal of promoting safer architectural practices.

“Schools like Yale have a crucial role to play in terms of shaping the dialogue and ensuring that progress is made,” Kim said.

The Rubin Foundation is also sponsoring a professional school seminar at the School of Architecture this semester, which Forneris teaches, entitled “Architectural Practice in the Developing World.”

Comments

  • yalengineer

    This is a major reason why Yale needs to reestablish a Civil Engineering program. 60 years ago, it used to be a major establishment but without a strong department, the School of Architecture will continue to miss an important partner in building safe and sustainable buildings.