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Sat 19 Mar 2011 12:00 AM

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Shock and awe

Mother Nature tests mettle of Japan’s people and its earthquake-proof buildings

Shock and awe
Engineering excellence curtailed the human toll
Shock and awe

The inter-connectedness of the planet is highlighted when a major
disaster strikes, like the recent massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami that
caused such devastation in Japan.
From the inevitable impact on global stock markets to the quick and heartfelt offers
of expert assistance and relief aid from all four corners, to the relentless footage
on major news channels detailing the initial event and thereafter its grim aftermath,
the totality and immediacy of this unprecedented natural disaster quickly became
overwhelming. (How much moreso then for the thousands upon thousands of people affected).

Some of the most dramatic footage had to have been that of skyscrapers
in Tokyo wobbling like pillars of jelly – a lasting testament to the high construction
standards adhered to in that country. From structural engineers to politicians,
the verdict has been unanimous: Japan’s
penchant for technical excellence and health and safety has saved countless lives.

What has also struck me from the barrage of television coverage
has been the incredibly stoic nature of the Japanese people. A large part of this
is due to the fact that children receive earthquake response training from an early
age, while earthquake drills and general preparedness are ingrained into the national
psyche. These range from having cushions at school to protect vulnerable heads and
bodies from falling debris to posting maps at workplaces to detail walking routes
if the transportation system fails. Most families also have a stockpile of emergency
staples on hand, and shelters.

From a construction point of view, it is interesting that all
buildings above a certain size have to be ‘earthquake-proof’. In addition, they
have to have designated disaster prevention experts on hand. Shim Jae-Hyun from
Korea’s
National Institute for Disaster Prevention said: “Just as soldiers learn military
tactics through repetitive training, Japanese disaster prevention education allows
people to act unconsciously according to the safety rules in an emergency.”

In 2009, a major earthquake-resistant structural system was tested
using the Earthquake Defense Shake Table, the largest of its kind in the world,
at the Hyogo Earthquake Engineering Research Centre in Japan. The model
was subjected to ground motions recorded during the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which resulted in 6,000 deaths.

The system that was tested dissipates energy through the movement
of steel frames located around the building’s core, or along the exterior walls.
These frames can be part of a building’s initial design, or they can be retrofitted.They
are economically viable as they use common construction materials, and are easily
prefabricated. It is clear that this kind of detailed and expensive research has
helped fortify Japan’s
building stock against the power of nature. However, this is scant consolation to
the lives lost and families torn asunder. As Prime Minister Naoto Kan said, Japan
will ultimately rise again from the rubble of this disaster.

Gerhard Hope, is the editor of Construction Week.

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