Are Chile’s building codes getting too much credit?

After Chile's recent earthquake, many have attributed the relatively low death toll to the strength of Chile's building codes. But there's a difference between building codes and building quality. 

By , Guest blogger

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    Cristian Arriagada leans against his destroyed house in Constitucion, Chile, March 2. A 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck central Chile early Feb. 27, killed at least 708 people and destroyed or badly damaged 500,000 homes.
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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:

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  • 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.

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