As an architect, contractor, owners’ representative and an expert in Third World construction, when building and managing projects in far-off and distant lands the recommendation to expatriate clients is to follow construction conventions that are usual to where they are building.
There is, however, an important exception to the going-native-rule. The focus of this article is why this exemption may be life-saving. It will also reveal the true causes of “natural disasters” and their relationship with the exclusion. Below are two short recollections about the use of local materials and labor skills. Their important purpose will become clear by the article’s conclusion.
One of the first homes that I designed and built in the Caribbean was for an American expat couple. On the island, the custom is to install electrical outlets horizontally rather than vertically, as they are in the states. The orientation has no affect on the outlets’ function. The owner’s demand that they be straight up rather than sideways was amusing to the local electricians working on the project. This insistence turned out to be a needless complication driven more by culture shock than reason. He required the electricians to remove, replace, and rewire those already installed. This decision had an impact on the schedule, and it added unnecessary cost to the project.
During the time when I was working with a San Juan architectural and engineering firm, the Puerto Rico Ports Authority gave the company a contract. It was to collaborate with an American design group. The project was a new airport terminal for the southern part of the island. Because of the stateside firm’s airport design experience, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recommended that the Ports Authority use them. Their design was surprising and baffling to the Puerto Rican officials and professionals. The concept used structural steel columns and beams with brick veneer as the primary exterior cladding. It was a perfectly suitable solution for Oklahoma, but not for Puerto Rico. The pros made two bad choices, the steel, and the brick. Reinforced concrete is the structural material of choice on the island, as it is still today in most Third World locations. Almost everywhere, local manufactures produce concrete and reinforcing steel. Being readily obtainable, these materials are, therefore, cost effective, along with the readily available on-site labor skills. In addition, outside of First World countries who produce structural steel there are few workers with experience in erecting conventional steel buildings. At that time Puerto Rico was not an exception. Additionally, island manufactures produce concrete blocks, but not common brick. Shipping them in by boat, because of their weight, would have made them as expensive to use as the indigenous quarried marble. Besides the material costs, it is difficult to find local masons with the skills to lay brick. The “experts” who arrived on the island with a recognizable “Ugly American” authority, withdrew. The local firm took over the design and completed the project for a larger fee than they were originally expecting. In addition, the Ports Authority paid them extra for overtime to maintain the original schedule and funding. Owners need to be well-informed, because the experts may not be.
Here is the important exclusion to adopting local ways and means of building. Be especially wary if you live in a country with an emerging economy that has earthquakes and most all countries do. Building with certain local materials and following the traditional construction techniques could cost you your life. Every year or two there are disaster stories about earthquakes. The reports entail the leveling of whole villages, towns, and even cities with tens of thousands of people dying. In the recent case of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the number of victims reached thirty times as many. On average, each year there are more than fifty-thousand earthquakes world-wide. Most of them are benign, but the devastating outcome of the Haitian earthquake is far from being an exception.
When these violent earthquakes happen, inevitably the temblor catches the blame for the death and destruction. This is an outright, as it is a perilous, misconception. Disregarding the severity, it is not the earthquake, however, that kills most of the victims. In reality, the true culprit is the houses and buildings that fell done on top of them. These at risk structures span the globe from Central and South America to the near and Far East. The materials used to build these dangerous buildings include either an adobe type of sun dried mud brick or rubble masonry. Even those using concrete blocks are often unsafe, because the blocks have more sand in them than cement. Purposely done to reduce costs, the disproportional sand content is only part of the problem. The material is often unwashed beach sand with a high salt content that weakens the concrete blocks and the mortar that binds them together. Sitting on top of the unstable walls are wood beams. Only mortar holds them in place while they support roofs and often multiple floors. In addition to the weak concrete due to the use of salt-laden sand there is a second issue. Many poured-in-place concrete structures lack the necessary reinforcing steel or the proper lateral support to resist seismic forces. When the temblor begins and the shaking starts the walls begin to crumble. The concrete columns shatter, the beams fail, and the upper floors and roof pancake down to the ground. Almost everyone has seen the video images of the World Trade Center twin towers collapsing. The size of these buildings created a perilous illusion. They made them appear to collapse in slow motion. Low rise buildings from one to three or four stories whose structural design does not meet earthquake forces collapse instantaneously. They fall not unlike a bowling ball rolling off a table. For the occupants there is little or no chance for escape. There is a sad ending to this distressing tale. After salvaging the beams and bricks, the owners of these structures rebuild using the same means that originally failed. Ten or twenty years later, like a sequel to a horror movie, the unfortunate, but preventable, deadly cycle repeats itself. The same scenario is happening in Haiti as you are reading this article.
Today engineers understand Seismic-engineering principles and can design structures to resist them. These traumatizing and heart wrenching episodes of mass destruction are not natural disasters, but human-made catastrophes. In some countries where these unnecessary events occur with regularity the governments’ posses’ nuclear weapons or are developing them. This includes India, Pakistan, and now Iran is pursuing the same misadventure. These nations are spending large sums and considerable amounts of their financial and intellectual national treasure on nuclear weapons and their maintenance. Still they are unable or unwilling to build safe housing for their indigenous populations. Unconscionable conduct, when you consider that the means to do so is common knowledge and the solutions inexpensive.
In all fairness, it is not just in emerging economies that these mislabeled natural disasters occur. One only has to remember the images of the desperate people who took refuge at the Superdome in New Orleans. In this case the hurricane Katrina took the heat for the flooding. There were three causes of the devastation, deaths, and destruction. None of them had anything to do with the hurricane. First, the poorly designed earthen levees played a major role. A second contributor was the inadequate and badly maintained flood control system. Finally, the third factor was an incompetently conceived evacuation plan. All of these causative elements were under the jurisdiction, of local, state, and federal government agencies. Of course, you do not have to be a city planner to see the initial issue. The below sea level site originally chosen to build New Orleans was a bad choice for the location of a city, to begin with.
What about China, where fifty-thousand people died during the summer of 2008 earthquake. This was according to reports made by the official Chinese news agency. The Chinese communist government is seldom honest and forthcoming, so undoubtedly the number of victims was in all likelihood greater than the official tally. Still following in the Chinese imperial tradition communist officials disdain the global press corps as being foreign devils. In 2010, how many perished in Haiti may never be fully known. By all accounts the total is five or six times as many as the latest earthquake in The People’s Republic of China. There is a growing community of English as second language teachers now living in many parts of China. It is unclear how many of these expats died. What is clear? It is that many expatriates did die in the vicinity around Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Most of the Chinese fatalities were typically the result of collapsed government housing, public schools, and municipal buildings. In Haiti, nearly all structures suffered serious damage, especially in the capital. This included the National Palace, and the two other well-known landmarks, the National Museum, and the Basilica of Notre Dame. The Hotel Montana was the most prominent hotel in the city. It is where visiting dignitaries would often stay, such as Bill Clinton. It also buckled into ruin, and became a tomb for at least sixty-expatriate guests, including a group of young American students and their professors. Television journalist Geraldo Rivera made the following observation while reporting for Fox News from the hotel shortly after the earthquake. Rivera held in his hand a piece of concrete and with his fingers crushed it into dust. He made a succinct comment on the easily tested and very apparent substandard quality of the material.
The real offender in the tragedy at the hotel was not the earthquake. It was the salt laden sand used in the concrete. Rivera’s investigative report dispels the false cause and effect impression that earthquakes kill people. There was another example. It further dismisses the notion of what caused Port-au-Prince to become a derelict city. All embassies built by the United States must follow seismic engineering principles. Engineers have understood them since before the middle of the twentieth-century. Qualified contractors construct these embassies and knowledgeable professionals inspect them. The Haiti embassy buildings did not collapse into a heap of ruin. They suffered only minor non life-threatening damage. One American embassy employee did die, when a home she was living in collapsed on top of her. Over one-hundred foreign nationals working for the United Nation also perished and for similar reasons.
Some might argue that the “wealthy” Americans have the resources, whereas the Haitians are poverty stricken. This argument proves false. This is especially true if you consider what the additional costs of sound engineering practice are. What may be surprising to many, the retort is very little. This is especially true when allowing for the cost of the loss of human life, and mounting an aid, rescue, and recovery effort. You need to add to those outlays the future expense in replacing the now destroyed buildings. Before that work can begin there is the expenditure for removing and hauling away of the rubble and debris. We are not done, because there is also the astronomical cost in replacing the damaged public utilities. This includes the city’s electric, sanitary sewer, and potable water systems. Today, engineers can design all infrastructure systems to resist this type of trauma. The total amount of all the expenses could easily surpass the yearly budgets of many First World nations.
Here are the facts. A mere pittance needs to spend to prevent most of the damage and resulting horror that we blame earthquakes for causing. What is the additional outlay for erecting an earthquake resistant low rise structure up to five stories? It could be as little as ten-percent of the original structure costs, or less than five-percent of the whole construction budget. This includes all the other material and labor costs to outfit a building, such as doors and windows, finishes, appliances, and electrical fixtures. A minuscule amount compared to the price now faced in making Port-au-Prince once again habitable.
Since no one is keeping a tally, the final outlay of the relief and rebuilding effort may never be known. If it was, no doubt the money spent could easily provide, in the Donald Trump tradition, upscale housing to every resident of the now unusable city. And, as an extra-bonus, the structures would be hurricane resistant. This is another threat that those who live in earthquake zones in the Tropics face yearly. How’s that for a value added minor, yet inexpensive and cost effective investment. Is it possible to construct a safe home for the same amount of money as originally budgeted? The answer is a resounding yes! You simply reduce the structure’s square feet by as little as ten-percent. It is hardly a sacrifice for anyone to make. This is especially true when you consider the dreadful nature of the deadly alternative.
For more than eighty-years engineers have understood Seismic forces and the engineering principals to resist them. Over the last decade international building codes that include seismic design regulations are becoming more widely adopted. In those countries that have building codes and regulations it does not mean that designers and builders are following them. This problem is even more pronounced in Third World countries where there is excessive corruption. In fairness, throughout developed countries there is no shortage of dishonest owners and contractors, or corrupt government regulators and inspectors. In some locations, contractors include in their bids the cost of paying off building officials and government agency inspectors. What is the real question? Do you really need regulations to see the wisdom in using design principles and inexpensive construction techniques that protect life, property, and investment?
You can expect rewards if you follow the recommendation and use local materials, labor, and conventions in building your project. The savings will normally more than offset the extra costs in designing the building’s structure to resist seismic forces, hurricane wind loading, or both. The outcome will be the construction of a safe home, hotel, resort, or any type of structure. Not only will you as the owner gain peace of mind, but the effort could be life-saving, rather than life-wrenching. If the design of your property considered seismic forces, it is a compelling selling point, no matter where you are living. This is especially true if you remind the potential buyer of 2010 and what happened in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
If your plan is to purchase an existing property, than mountain vistas, ocean views, or the size of the swimming pool are all considerations. More important, however, is whether the design of the building considered the local risks. Chances improve with the age of the building. The newer, the odds are that it was. The natural hazards are not only earthquakes and hurricanes. There are other risks including landslides, volcanoes, and tsunamis, plus avalanches or snow loading on roofs in northern climates. In densely forested areas, wildfires are a common danger. There are mitigation means for all of these threats to life, limb, and property when building. They often come with no or very little additional costs. For further information about natural hazards world-wide visit The US Geological Survey website at http://www.usgs.gov/hazards.
For those others planning to rent a charming apartment or a Tuscany styled country home, there may be hidden dangers. I often read about inexpensive rentals in cities and towns in some far-off and distant land where expats desire to live. During my earlier experiences as an expatriate I too sought after them. Having gained experience after 30-years my reaction today is one of concern. The guidelines on leasing are similar to those with purchasing. The newer the structure the more safe it probably is. There is one custom from which you can gain a lesson. It shows how wise the scholars of the past may have been, if not at the least practical. During graduation ceremonies students and professors wear skull caps with a flat template-like top from which tassels dangle. Most participants and attendees have no knowledge of where this traditional head gear came from, or its function. They are known as mortar boards and for a good reason. Their original purpose had nothing to do with today’s pomp and circumstances, but everything to do with protecting the medieval literati from falling ceiling plaster. You need to take precautions if you decide to lease an apartment in an old-world type building in an earthquake zone. You may want to consider protecting yourself by wearing a construction helmet in bed. Does that sounds to far fetch or eccentric? At least remove that heavy ceramic vase from the shelf above the headboard, before a tremor does it for you. It could result in the least suffering pain and discomfort, or worse it may permanently end your expatriate adventure, sooner rather than later. Similar occurrences are exactly what killed many of the expats in Haiti.
For an expat, living through any type of natural disaster may be worse than going to jail in a foreign country, where you do not speak the language. Whatever the local risks, there are ways to modify all building to make them safe. The cost of doing so might be more than it may have been if done originally. Still, the expense is less than what the costs will undoubtedly be after an event.
My goal in writing this article was to trumpet a warning and maybe save lives. Whereas there are risks to life and limb no matter where we live, one can take sensible precautions. Although admittedly not on the scale of Haiti, I have lived through several temblors. Swaying light fixtures and books falling off of shelves, all of which when happening are, even if momentary, still disconcerting. There was confidence, nevertheless, that the roof was not going to pancake down. It was reassuring to know that the design and construction of the structure conformed to current seismic engineering practice. Knowing that life was not in danger, riding out several hurricanes in the same building was with a sense of calm. While listening to the 100-mile an hour winds the realization came that it was a good choice to make the small investment in doing what was right. The same story is not true about a sailboat. During one storm, it suffered damage when left unprotected at a not-so safe mooring. Something can be said, when it comes to building, the advice is not; do as I say, but not as I do. A mind at ease, because I follow the exclusion rule and design and construct client’s homes and buildings to protect them, as I did my own. They are for them a safe harbor from these not-so natural disasters.
About the author: James Tate is the author of the ebook An Expatriate Life in Puerto Rico which is available to purchase and download now With valuable information on the transportation system, must-see places, nightlife, eating out, entertainment and healthcare. Chapters on money and real estate complete the picture, but essentially this book is an in-depth look at the rich tapestry of San Juan Antigua’s past.