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What's Wrong in this Picture?

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

Bad choices can make buildings turn lethal during earthquakes.These photos were taken the day after a Magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015. What appears as a 3-story building had been 4 stories just hours earlier.

A collapsed school building in Nepal the day after a M 7.8 earthquake struck. Photo: Anne Sanquini.

Can you spot the construction “don'ts”? (See answers below). Emerging economies routinely suffer tragic and preventable losses from earthquakes, but that can change. Buildings can be designed and properly constructed to protect the people inside.

Think of the crushed desks as stand-ins for children who, fortunately, were not in class at the time. People and organizations intended to help the children of Nepal when they built schools--but they built many without seismic safeguards. Was the building code understood or enforced during construction? Likely not.

Close-up showing pancake collapse of a Nepal school after a M7.8 earthquake. Photo: Anne Sanquini.

Lack of safe schools will now affect a generation of Nepal’s children. In its Post Disaster Needs Assessment, the Government of Nepal reports that nearly 7,000 schools were completely or significantly damaged in the earthquake and aftershocks. Many more need to be strengthened to withstand future earthquakes.

Rebuilding the damaged Nepal schools will cost an estimated $400 million US dollars. Foreign governments, international aid agencies, foundations and individuals will contribute to that effort. Given the certainty of more earthquakes, it is incumbent on every donor to require that all Nepali schools be designed and constructed to withstand earthquakes.

What to do? Build best the first time, so people have no need to build back. Support organizations that boost knowledge of local building artisans and engineers, and those that promote earthquake-safe construction in the community. Follow best practices, even if building codes are poorly enforced.

Earthquake safety and preparedness for schools has been a focus of GeoHazards International for twenty-four years. Nepal and other vulnerable nations will continue to have potent earthquakes. Our work continues apace.

Answers: Lack of ductile reinforcement detailing (for example, no ties apparent in beam column joints; no closely spaced ties at column ends); poor quality materials (column longitudinal reinforcing appears to be smooth bars, whereas correct practice is deformed bars that “grab” the concrete for a better bond); building is not redundant in the narrow direction (only 2 columns, so no frame capacity remains if one fails); single wythe brick infill walls above the first story create falling hazards (note piles of bricks, note that ground story double wythe walls did not collapse); top story appears to have poorly constructed unreinforced brick addition with no roof diaphragm; probably poor quality masonry.


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