Are Chile’s Building Codes Getting Too Much Credit?

Many commentators have pointed to Chile’s stringent building codes as a key reason why the death toll from its earthquake (in the hundreds at this writing) has been so much lower than in Haiti (in the hundreds of thousands).

Unfortunately, much of this commentary confuses two separate concepts: building quality and building codes. Building quality clearly played a key role in minimizing death and damage from the earthquake. Indeed, Chilean buildings are well-known for incorporating earthquake resistance techniques such as the strong columns, weak beams system.

That doesn’t imply, however, that building codes deserve credit for the quality of the buildings. Indeed, I can think of three other factors that likely deserve some credit as well:

  • Chile’s wealth. In 2009, per capita income in Chile was eleven times higher than in Haiti. Even in the absence of any building codes, the relatively rich Chileans would not be living in buildings as fragile as those in Haiti.
  • Chile’s history of earthquakes. In 1960, Chile suffered the largest earthquake on record (9.5), killing several thousand people. Even in the absence of any building codes, memories of that quake would have encouraged Chileans to construct more earthquake-resistant buildings. In Haiti, in contrast, the last major earthquake was in 1842, before the memories of any living Haitians.
  • Chile’s enforcement of building codes. Building codes are just pieces of paper (or their electronic equivalent). Governments can create all the codes they want, but if unscrupulous officials don’t enforce them—or get bribed to look the other way—they can be next to useless. Chile ranked among the 20 least corrupt nations in the world in 2009; Haiti was among the 12 most corrupt.

My point is not that building codes had no effect. I bet they did. But that’s not the whole story when it comes to building quality. Chileans would have built better buildings than Haitians anyway.  And Chileans live in a society where building codes actually get enforced. For both those reasons, we shouldn’t overstate the importance of building codes alone in explaining Chile’s resilience and Haiti’s devastation. Nor should we leap to the conclusion that the way to deal with Haiti’s future earthquake threats is to import Chile’s building code.

My second point is a scientific one. In principle, Chile’s earthquake provides an opportunity for researchers to evaluate just how important building codes have been in protecting Chile’s buildings. Enterprising analysts should look for situations that allow us to identify the effect of building codes versus other factors. For example, much has been made of the building code revisions that Chile adopted in 1995. That suggests one empirical strategy: compare what happened to buildings that were constructed in 1994 to buildings that were constructed in 1996. Did the 1996 ones perform much better? That would suggest that the building codes really helped. Or did 1994 buildings do just as well as the 1996 ones? That would suggest that the codes had little effect, perhaps because they were just capturing practices that were already in use by Chilean builders.

For related discussions, see this piece from Fast Company and this piece from the Infrastructurist. The comments on the second piece include an interesting discussion of the extent to which Chilean buildings would have been earthquake resistant in the absence of building codes. One commentator offers the extreme view that the building codes had no effect, while others offer the other extreme. I think the truth is in the middle.

12 thoughts on “Are Chile’s Building Codes Getting Too Much Credit?”

  1. You are high… I realize you are an expert in Economics and Finance and the points you make in relation to materials and quality and fundinding run hand in hand but other than that you are a moron.
    I have been an inspector over seven years and I have seen people from other countries come here and build with the resources available in the USA there techniques are bound to fail.
    A code gives everyone “minimum standards” to build by. Minimum = the least quantity assignable, admissible, or possible.
    How about you tell our troops that have been getting electrocuted while they shower in Iraq that “Building Codes Get Too Much Credit” or do me one better go move your family into an already built structure that was not subject to inspection and trust you can trust the “quality” when the earth decides to shake or wind loads become extreme, or go to a hospital that was built on quality alone.
    Please….. take your over educated tail back to school and stop touting economic superiority rules the world and saves lives. There is a huge difference in “Quality and Quality Assuarance”
    You damn rich kid… pick up a hammer and throw on some nail bags and then write your opinion or maybe sit down and talk to one of your engineer buddies and see what they say about your opinion.

  2. So what you’re saying is that building codes in Chile played a role in protecting it but at the same time they didn’t….?

    Get off your high horse, the building codes are better in Chile because it is a country with a higher GDP and they don’t live in straw huts, true. But that doesn’t justify downplaying building codes or downright discrediting them because you want to say that Chile is corrupt yet isn’t?

    “Chile’s enforcement of building codes. Building codes are just pieces of paper (or their electronic equivalent). Governments can create all the codes they want, but if unscrupulous officials don’t enforce them—or get bribed to look the other way—they can be next to useless. Chile ranked among the 20 least corrupt nations in the world in 2009; Haiti was among the 12 most corrupt.”

    Next time try not to contradict yourself as much…

  3. In Haiti many large structures were built with heavy roofs as protection against hurricaine winds. When the walls gave way that was a particular disadvantage to people in those buildings.

    Bottom line for Port au Prince is that it should not be rebuilt as it was at its present location — harbor notwithstanding — because if (likely when) it is, then 10 or 20 or 40 years down the line, this will all be repeated again.

    -A geologist

  4. Tell that John James guy to pound sand!

    What the hell is fundinding? This guy should slow down and get composed before he writes his opinion for the world to see.

    Haiti has been colonized throughout their entire history. Their valuable resources have been consistently funneled out of that country since Chris Columbus enslaved them, oops I mean discovered them.

    Chile had resources, such as rebar, available to them when they built their buildings while Haitians gathered all the mud they could find to just get out of the damn rain and provide a little shelter for their families.

    The difference is is really that about the quality of resources because there are good and bad contractors in every market.

    Plus everyone knows that Chileans are just better, cleaner and smarter than the Haitians.

    INVESTIGATE 9/11- The building codes and fire protection on those buildings were more than adequate to keep those buildings standing.

    1. Mr. HD thank you for inspecting my work and providing peer review. Now I know where I have accidently made errors and not met minimum English standards and can repair my discrepancies.

  5. Chile had buildings which were designed and built to resist strong lateral forces. If you want to visualize a lateral force on a building, think of a 100mph wind blowing on the side of a building and that would be similar to an earthquake force. Now, even if this building were designed to modern engineering standards to resist earthquakes, it would collapse if it was built using shoddy construction materials.
    A building that is not designed to resist earthquake (that is to say lateral) forces will not survive a strong quake even if built with high-quality construction materials. Based on the number of buildings that collapsed in Haiti, we know that either earthquake engineering or proper construction was neglected. What is meant by earthquake engineering?

    Engineers have been studying the effects of earthquakes on structures for a long time. California was an early pioneer after the destructive Long Beach earthquake of 1933. Many schools and houses collapsed, and engineers learned valuable lessons in how to build with such materials as brick and masonry. Strong building codes were passed, and strong building departments made sure that all structures were built to code with quality materials.

    Even so, every modern earthquake is studied by engineer-earthquake-chasers if you will, who gather pictures and other evidence so that buildings can be designed to be even stronger than before. For instance, the Northridge California quake of 1994 taught engineers further lessons on how to improve welding techniques. This is very important in places where steel framing resists the lateral forces of earthquakes (ie, Los Angeles).

    Now, as to the question of why so many buildings in Haiti collapsed, the answer is similar to the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake in China: shoddy construction, low-quality materials, little or no earthquake engineering, lack of strong building codes, and building officials who may have been corrupt.

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    Lets look at Concrete:
    Reinforced-concrete is one of the best materials to resist earthquakes. The term reinforced refers to the reinforcing steel (rebars) inside the concrete. Concrete is made with bags of cement, water, clean sand, and aggregate which can be rounded or angular. It is incorrect to say “the cement was weak” when what you mean is “the concrete is weak”. In the early days of concrete, smooth rebars did not have ridges to improve bonding, and the steel had a lower strength. However, I would be quite surprised to learn that the reinforcing steel used in Haiti was “smooth” or “brittle”, or that this caused the many building failures.
    A more likely reason is inadequate amount of steel. For instance, the importance of “stirrups” around the main rebars in areas of high stress. I would think that in a place like Haiti, the lack of enough steel in the concrete would be a major reason why structures came down, since steel is always the most expensive component in construction no matter where you build in the world. Concrete without steel (like masonry without steel) is a deadly substance in an earthquake.

  6. I attended a reading of “Glass on the Moon”–a most poetic & most intelligent experimental docu drama in New York City. Authored by PLAYWRIGHT LARRY MYERS, it is a Chilean collage of character monologues. Extremely sensorial, it captures sounds shapes colors & rhythms of Chile. It is a frightening & sometimes gallows humoresque stage piece.
    When I saw “Point of Impact” at the Where Eagles dare Theater it was sold out. With a cast of 18 it created rumbles & reverberations comparble to Haiti & Chile. Of particular interest were divas Karen Giordano Ronnie Narpel Janice Bishop & Bina Sharif. The work had an international flavor. Dr Myers heads an international playwriting center in the city. His plays at St John’s reflect service & volunteerism. Myers wrote the play as he packed boxes with his Haitian students. He interviewed Haitians in French & Chileans in Spanish. His “Glass” will be presented at both the saval & Leslie/Lohman Theaters in Manhattan.

  7. At Where Eagles Dare Theater I experienced a play reminiscent of another time frame –when there was a viable political theater –when there was a viable poetic theater. Skillfully acted by a talented ensemble, it was a work of daring & potent as a grenade. Actresses barked out the witty dialogue & filled the emotional lyrical language with real feeling. Myers’ plays are authentic, artistic & uncompromising. His new “Glass on the Moon” is a sequel to the aforementioned “Point of Impact” to which I refer.
    “Glass” is an indictment of Chilean excess & an homage & celebration of Chilean culture. Dr Myers found the real people in New York City & spoke to them in their native languages! “Glass” will be done at Leslie/Lohman Theater on Wooster Street in May. It will preview in March at Saval Thaeter at 101 Murray Street (across from the World Trade Center).

  8. Another factor is the different climate in Haiti and Chile. The temperature in Santiago drops to 3°C in the winter. That calls for a warmer building. The cold weather requires a sturdier structure than Haiti’s weather requires. Or sturdier people.

    Even if you wanted to avoid building code requirements, you won’t avoid what Mother Nature will do to you in a few months. A Haitian shack in Chile would leave you shivering at best. Adding insulation requires more lumber to hold it. Covering the insulation well on both sides so it can work and be protected from storms causes a wall to become a rigid block. Putting a ceiling below the roof (to keep the warm air in) adds more cross bracing for the walls.

    If you’re not using wood for this, but instead using brick and concrete (whether from custom or termite avoidance), then even the thinnest walls become rock-like supports with several cross braces. Any wood rods or rebar reduce the brittleness of brick or concrete. Any interlocked rebar between the edges of walls and ceilings allow the structure to flex rather than crack apart and flatten.

    The cold requires a more substantial structure. The more substantial structure can cause more injury if it falls on you, but this might not have happened if the earthquake was different or if the construction held the buildings together longer.

    Another factor is whether many buildings in Haiti were so light that survival was easy, but that depends upon whether the threshold for injury/entrapment is so low that most Haitian homes had enough material to trap someone.

  9. A most provocative point of view. In the code adoption process, cost vs. safety is always a central argument. While it is possible to regulate construction to the point where we could not afford the buildings that provided the greatest levels of safety, it doesn’t do much good to have a stringent code if mud or materials salvaged from a landfill are the only available building materials. South Florida pre and post Hurricane Andrew provides an interesting place to see the difference between earlier and latter damage during natural disasters. It is commonly believed that strengthening the code reduced the amount of damage suffered in subsequent storms.

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  11. In first term… I am sorry for my bad english. I ‘am chilean. I would like to update your discussion with the recent reports in Chile about the causes of damages onto buildings on Santiago.

    Few day ago, we knew by a oficial report that the only one modern building fell down in santiago was because it was not made in accordance to the chilean´s codes of construction. It building was not 10 year old.

    I think in general terms you have reason the codes are not the only one explanation. Obviously, it have a relation with the chilean sismic culture and the better than haiti economical situation.

    In last two decades, we have improved ours ecomonomical situation as Country. So we are improving ours codes because they were designed to allow to the people flee without the building collapsed. But this code´s does not guarantee that the building be fully useful after the earthquake. In this days, a lot of engenneer are suggesting improve the codes to ensure the building´s functionality after the earthquake. That is beacuse a lot building did not collapse but they are useless now. So the economical´s lost in infrastructure is very important.

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