Smarter engineering could help recovery from major disasters

Smarter engineering could help recovery from major disasters
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Fighting a two-front battle is never an ideal arrangement, but it is something we must consider. After all, we will almost certainly face another natural disaster in the coming year, on top of the devastating effects of coronavirus.  

While we must continue fighting the pandemic, we cannot neglect to prevent other natural disasters and environmental calamities from wreaking havoc on our communities. How do we do this? Part of the answer lies in the efforts we must make — and untapped resources we have at our disposal — to preserve our structures using enhanced technology. 

This year, on Jan. 24, my hometown in Turkey was struck with a 6.8-magnitude earthquake, which killed at least 29 people and injured thousands. On the same very day, my research team at the University of Virginia conducted our first experimental test of seismic protection technology and memory materials that would allow buildings to revert to their original forms after an earthquake. 

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As someone who has learned first-hand the devastation that disasters cause, I know that there is more we can do to prevent devastation. Seismic protection technology and other adaptive building materials can help prevent severe social and economic shake-ups from natural disasters, often caused by buildings that get heavily damaged.

In 2010 and 2011, Christchurch, New Zealand experienced two earthquakes six months apart. The first earthquake did not cause mass devastation, but in combination with the second earthquake, three quarters of the region’s housing was damaged, which led to severe economic effects in the city. Making buildings strong enough to withstand natural catastrophes — like earthquakes — and remain habitable, could help avoid what occurred following the disasters in Christchurch.  

Versions of resilient technology are already being used to a certain extent in Japan, and with the threat that earthquakes pose to the social and economic well-being of our nation, we should be employing them on a broader scale in the United States and across the globe. Why aren’t we already? 

Most of the answer simply comes down to cost. These advanced building technologies come with an upfront premium compared to traditionally designed buildings. When implementing stricter codes related to hurricanes and earthquakes, governments face backlash from developers. The costs of these technologies, though, are outweighed by the benefits. Analysts estimate that devastating earthquakes in Puerto Rico earlier this year could cost the territory $3.1 billion, on top of the $43 billion impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Disaster mitigation measures, such as smarter building technology, could prevent similar devastating losses in the future.

Expanding funding for research that is focused on developing new technologies and building materials is a first step toward a reality in which buildings are more resilient across the board. The National Science Foundation and other federal agencies have already begun sponsoring this work, but in order to potentially develop cost-effective resilient building technologies, more research is required. 

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The technology engineers have been studying only increases construction cost by 5 percent; we need to continue working toward innovative, creative solutions to further reduce costs for these important structural technologies and for developers to see the incentive in resilient building.

A 2018 federal study found that a quarter of buildings in the San Francisco Bay Area would be significantly damaged after a 7-magnitude earthquake. Building regulations across the United States need to be updated so that they promote more resilient designs. Currently, codes are only meant to prevent immediate loss of life during a disaster, but not to ensure the immediate habitability of a structure. Updating building codes and requiring new construction to incorporate adaptive materials and technologies will go a long way to mitigate disaster risk. 

To be able to meet these building codes and promote the use of advanced materials and technologies, federal or state subsidies for using such technology would give developers incentives to create safer buildings. Building public awareness of the need for better and safer buildings is also needed — most Americans aren’t aware that their homes are designed to be damaged during an earthquake. With natural disasters costing the United States $45 billion in 2019 alone, the potential savings from enforcing more sustainable building codes would ultimately be worth it in the long term. 

While we’re currently facing a disaster of unprecedented scale with the global pandemic, we can’t ignore the opportunity to prevent other devastating economic and social losses from other disasters. By building stronger, more resilient buildings that let life continue with some normalcy after an earthquake or other catastrophic event, we can avoid greater damage. 

Dr. Osman Ozbulut is an associate professor of civil engineering in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on applying innovative materials, sensing technologies and interdisciplinary expertise to the development of resilient and sustainable civil infrastructure systems.