Building Code: A Lesson From The Earthquake : Uttam Maharjan

The recent earthquake of April 25, together with a series of aftershocks, especially the powerful one of May 12, has taught many lessons to the government and people alike. The earthquake left behind a trail of mind-boggling and blood-curdling devastation that has claimed over 8,600 lives and destroyed around 760,000 houses or buildings. The loss of property was estimated at Rs. 500 billion, a huge amount for a poor country like Nepal.

Building code violation

The engineers from the Nepal Engineering Association are inspecting the damaged structures. They are of the view that most of the houses or buildings damaged or destroyed in the earthquake were those that had been constructed by flouting the building code. In fact, Nepal is a country where laws are meant to be violated! The same thing applies to the building code as well.

There is a building code in Nepal. The code was enacted in 1994. Perhaps, the building code was brought into force in view of the destructive earthquake that struck the country in 1988. Earlier, the country had suffered a great earthquake measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale in 1934. However, the country has not learnt any lesson from the earthquakes that it has been subject to from time to time as it lies in the seismic zone.

The 1994 building code has remained dormant since its enforcement. Had the building code been implemented strictly, the loss from the recent earthquake could have been less than what it is now. People tend to build high-storey buildings against drawings for low-storey ones. The concerned authorities also connive at such irregularities, perhaps for some rupees. The same is the case with high-rise apartments. For example, the Park View Horizon Apartment Building, which was the worst-hit among the apartment houses, has 17 storeys against its blueprint for 11.

The recent earthquake has damaged tall structures, including buildings and apartment houses, besides old structures such as houses and monuments. That some houses have subsided into the ground shows that no geological test is conducted in Nepal while building a structure. This has taught a great lesson that a geological test, otherwise known as a soil test in simple parlance, is a must for constructing strong structures.

The trail of destruction wrought by the recent earthquake is a fait accompli - it cannot be reversed. However, the time has now come for us to learn a lesson from the earthquake. It seems we did not learn any lesson from the 1934 Great Earthquake. Nor did we learn anything from the 1988 earthquake. Even the existing building code has turned out to be just bumph.

The government is mulling over allowing the construction of houses of two storeys only as the recent earthquake has affected multi-storey and high-rise structures to a great extent. The government is also considering revising the existing building code with provisions for the need to build strong earthquake-resistant structures and perhaps the compulsory requirement of a geological test.

Restriction of houses up to two storeys only has some practical problems. If one has a large plot of land, he can build a two-storey house with enough rooms. What if one has a small plot of land, say one measuring one anna or less in area?  In such a small area, only one room can be accommodated on one storey. On the ground floor, even no room may be accommodated. In the inner city - and in the main city, too - there are multi-storey houses built on small plots of land. If the houses are to be demolished and rebuilt, what is one to do? To be content with building two-storey buildings or sell them or buy neighbours' houses? How can this predicament be tackled?

However, one thing is clear. This policy goes on to show that people should go for large plots of land. This will prevent land from fragmentation into small plots as is in practice now.

In the past, land was separated into two parts: one for building purposes and the other for cultivation purposes. With a booming population and rapid urbanisation, haphazard construction is taking place. Even fertile land earmarked for cultivation has been plotted out by the developers for construction purposes. As a result, private houses and apartment houses are sprouting out on an unprecedented scale.

People should be conscious now. While building houses, they should consult engineers and build houses strictly in keeping with the blue prints drawn upon in compliance with the building code. A geological test also needs to be conducted so as to prevent an untoward incident in the future such as land subsidence.

The concerned municipality or VDC authorities should see to it that a house is built as per the blue print and that no deviation is taking place. Connivance on the part of engineers or the concerned authorities is not to be allowed under any circumstances. The building law should be enforced strictly, and any person or organisation that violates the law should be punished by demolishing the illegally built portions of the building.

Safety factor

It is feared that the building code may be enforced for one or two years and thereafter it will sink into the waters of forgetfulness, creating the laid-back situation before the earthquake. The building code should be in force forever as it is a safety factor. It can save life and property in disasters like an earthquake.

The honesty of the government, engineers and house-owners counts a lot when it comes to implementing the building code in its strictest terms. Perhaps, this is the greatest lesson we have drawn from the recent earthquake. After all, the safety factor must have precedence over all other factors such as a commercial factor. And "Stay safe" should be the watchword in the construction sector. Let's vow that from now onwards we will build houses or buildings or any other structures keeping in mind the safety factor.  

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