Self-Taught MBA: The Morality of Code Enforcement
On the evening of 16 April my wife and I had just returned from a day at the beach, we were dressing for dinner, when the electricity blinked off, our building began to shudder and shake ferociously, and without thought, as if chased by wild dogs, we dashed outdoors, to find all of our neighbors had done the same, wide-eyed with the panic earthquakes provoke when powerful and prolonged. We were lucky, we didn’t know that during the same 40 seconds during which we managed to dash downstairs and out the front door, hundreds of others had been crushed under collapsing homes and hotels, and thousands had suffered severe injuries.
We reside near the pacific coast of Ecuador, were the population has just lived through a tragic reminder of why construction norms exist. And suffered the consequences of not following them. The 7.9 Muisne earthquake, caused widespread damage across four provinces, with structures hundreds of kilometers from the epicenter collapsing. At least 659 people were killed and 27,732 people injured. Tens of thousands left homeless.
The Cost of No Code Enforcement
Within a few days of the quake, I was working as a volunteer inspector, touring the hundreds of relatively undamaged buildings that still stood, seeing if they were habitable. What I found, horrified me, not because I was seeing tragedy, rescue workers from all over the world were doing this gruesome work, but due to the structural vulnerability of the great majority of the buildings I inspected. Ecuador has a laissez-faire residential code enforcement policy, and the downside to inspection-free, no-hassle homebuilding was painfully obvious.
Most construction I inspected didn’t meet even minimum standards of logic, let alone building code. I saw masonry walls with no rebar, no connection to adjacent walls, roofs or floors. I saw lightweight, wood framed first floors with three stories of unreinforced masonry and concrete built over top.
I felt as if I were touring the future burial ground of all the anxious families that gathered as we looked through the homes, hoping we inspectors would give them the green light to move back in. And for the most part, we did, along with a few quick instructions on what to fix and how. It was not possible to order the demolition of the entire city for substandard construction, although this would have been wise. It became evident that the earthquake had not killed or maimed, but the builders who shortcut, undercut, and cut corners were the real, albeit unwitting murderers of so many.
The Moral Dimension Compliance
The design and construction of residential structures, carries a profound moral responsibility for the survival and wellbeing of those who will occupy them. When you cinch up a gas connection, wire a GFCI, place a foundation bolt in wet concrete, or tighten the nuts on a deck ledger board, you are every bit as responsible for the safety of your clients as an airline pilot for his passengers or a heart surgeon for the patient, doubly so in areas at risk of seismic impacts, storms and flooding.
In Ecuador, construction norms also exist, but due to lack of enforcement, no one I have spoken to has ever seen them. Most actually didn’t know they existed until the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, recently ordered all builders of collapsed structures jailed, if their buildings didn’t comply with the NEC (Ecuadorian Construction Norms)-and to an extent, I agree with him.
But on a more positive note, the wakeup call has provoked the same tumultuous reaction we had, here in the USA, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which killed 3000, injured 20,000 and left a quarter-of-a-million homeless. Ecuador is grappling with a revolution in building regulation and enforcement. Just as we have, after each terrible natural and manmade disaster, from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 through to Hurricane Sandy in 2013, our codes have by and large grown out of and improved on the heels of tragedy.
I am now contributing my limited experience with FEMA inspection and repair methods (I have worked as a FEEMA adjuster), and the earthquake retrofit trade that I learned during ten years of rebuilding in Los Angeles, to help the folks in Ecuador develop prescriptive reconstruction methods. The model codes we have developed in the USA have helped many countries, from Chile to China, jumpstart their own national regulations. We are utilizing them right now to provide guidance in the reconstruction efforts that have already gotten underway in the afflicted areas of Ecuador.
Our much maligned model building codes, and those mossy-backed inspectors that enforce them, give tradesmen a basis of best practice that would otherwise not exist at all. The low mortality rates we suffer in natural disaster nowadays, only two deaths in the 6.6 magnitude San Simeon quake of 2003, represent a moral testament to the value of prescriptive engineering and its enforcement. Those code comities, plan reviewers, and the pesky inspectors protect you and your business by ensuring we have rules to follow, and we follow those rules. So next time your building inspector walks up to the jobsite, shake his hand and say thank you.
Falling debris kills in a quake, just as well as collapsing buildings will.
The epicenter of the earthquake was off the coast of northwest Ecuador, need the city of Esmeralda, where I am working, and the fishing town of Muisne.
The structures are often very humble, but even the least of homes must be constructed safely.
The 7.8 magnitude thrust had enough power to knock bridges down hundreds of kilometers away, as this overpas that fell with deadly consecuences in Guayaquil.