Keeping our Homes Safe from Disasters
The way architects and engineers approach building safety and protection has changed significantly since that fateful day September 11, 2001. We have learned that we are not only vulnerable to external calamities such as earthquakes, storms and flooding, but also terrorists, vandals and just plain, mean people. There are lessons to learn for all of us.
The general assumption has been blast-containment is the most critical issue. The general argument after 9/11 was that new buildings must have heavier fire-resistive exteriors to protect against all forms of mayhem, either human or nature inflicted. Since then the focus has turned to the need for safe and speedy evacuation during any emergency.
Structurally, making a building safe from external blast is proving to be less important than the most significant failing of the WTC towers. Progressive floor collapse or “pancaking” is the real danger of mid-20th Century construction. We’ve seen this in earthquakes and terrorist attacks. Commercial building and even homeowners of wood framed two or three story structures built in this era should have the support systems reviewed by a structural engineer for resistance to sudden jolting calamities that can occur virtually instantaneously.
Every building, home or apartment should include extra precautions to ensure continued essential services. This includes emergency service access, utility protection and secured premises. Means of exiting even a one-story single-family home should be maintained at all times in a safe as well as secure path of travel. Stairways and hallways, even short ones, should be secured, well lit, preferably with a battery back-up, and kept clear. Non-structural elements should be properly secured. This is required by the Building Code but is often ignored by builders and homeowners. In even a light earthquake, a shaking bookcase can be a killer.
In the 2014 earthquake the Napa downtown Safeway building not only had severe structural damage, but the ceiling tiles and cabinets were so loose, virtually the whole ceiling was on the floor and cabinets were moved five feet if not flat on the floor. My house survived well but I lost two trash cans of glass art off the shelves.
The configuration and location of a building should minimize a vehicle ramming the entry or portions of the structure. This may sound neurotic, but even Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of aesthetics and planning, believed a house at the end of a street is in jeopardy of evil spirits or bandits crashing into the structure. It just makes practical sense.
Safe havens should be considered in the design of a residence. A “Safe Room” doesn’t have to be a concrete bunker, but a part of a house that can easily be accessed in an earthquake or catastrophic event.
We live in an era of chemical and biological mayhem that can be caused by terrorist, vandals or stupid truck drivers. Home and building owners should check their most vulnerable entrée: exterior air intakes or exhausts. Every building draws air, usually at ground or eye-level, that we take for granted and is often available for dangerous admission. At the very least, make sure grade level vents are locked or protected by a heavy grate.
Probably the single best defense for a disaster is vigilance, keen observation and simple considerations. Every home and building should have clear diagrams for exiting and how to respond in emergencies. There is no reason why young children can’t be educated how to get out of a building in an emergency. You are not immune and neither are our families. If the average life of most building is 50 years, we need to start think about Resilience and Sustainability for longer building life. The chances are, an external catastrophic emergency requiring immediate evacuation in that lifetime.
The bottom line is; there is no way to tell how safe is safe. Often design is a compromise between dreams, aspirations and economics, but when it comes to human safety, always take the high road.
Chris d Craiker AIA/ NCARB Craiker Architects & Planners have been designing sustainable buildings for over 40 years