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Aurecon provides specialist earthquake engineering help in Nepal

Earthquake devastated Bhaktapur Nepal

Earthquake devastated town of Bhaktapur, Nepal

23 July 2015 - Aurecon’s expertise in earthquake engineering has seen two members of the Christchurch office assisting in Nepal’s recovery following the recent earthquakes.

Dr Jan Kupec, a Technical Director and Geotechnical Engineer, took part in the Learning from Earthquakes (LfE) reconnaissance mission that was led by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) and the New Zealand Society of Earthquake Engineering (NZSEE). In Nepal the team collaborated with the Nepalese National Society for Earthquakes Technology (NSET) and visited many sites affected by the earthquakes.  

Strengthening building code compliance in developing countries

For the last year Forrest Lanning, an Associate and Structural Engineer, has been part of an eight-person international team of EERI Housner Fellows looking at ‘strengthening building code compliance in developing countries with a case study on Nepal.’

This two-year pro bono study is not only looking at guidelines for best practice in addressing building code enforcement gaps and issues but also providing recommendations for local implementation in Nepal.

Lanning said that the recent earthquakes are a trigger for the group to expedite and refocus the work they are doing.

“To this end we recently applied for a grant to fund all eight Housner Fellows, who are located around the world, to travel to Nepal in August or September and work with our colleague, Surya Narayan (Learning From Earthquakes team co-leader), on the ground and gather perishable data on:

  • How did buildings covered by Nepalese building codes perform in the earthquake?
  • Was code compliance correlated with a particular occupancy or construction type?
  • Was there a difference between compliance in urban and rural regions?

“It was just unfortunate that the earthquakes happened when they did as we knew of the risks in Nepal and actions were being taken, but they were not advanced enough.”

Lanning, who also worked on earthquake-related projects in Afghanistan and Indonesia following the quakes and tsunami of 2004, said that many countries around the world have building codes in place, and Nepal is no exception. It is just that there is difficulty in many of these countries to enforce these codes.

“Recent earthquake disasters in some areas of the world have demonstrated that the mere existence of building codes and regulations has little influence on the safety of buildings, as these regulations are rarely enforced to their original or intended purposes,” he said.

Geotechnical engineering specialist assesses Nepal’s infrastructure 

Dr Kupec, who is a Christchurch based USAR team engineering specialist, said that the EERI/NZSEE team spent two weeks assessing damage to buildings and infrastructure in Kathmandu and the rural areas with their Nepalese counterparts.

Already Dr Kupec said there were changes in Government thinking in Nepal. These include:

  • The Government suspended all new building work to enable re-evaluation of structural designs.
  • Geotechnical engineering input will be sought for all new multi-storey buildings, but the definition is yet to be found of what a multi-storey building is.
  • Structural engineers are calling to replace brick wall infills with lightweight alternatives and build smarter
  • The existing building code is being reviewed and structures are being assessed against it - introducing the concept of NBS.

Dr Kupec said that the earthquake have had a major impact on the city and especially on heritage buildings for which Kathmandu is famous for. However, the real impact was in the rural community where many unreinforced masonry buildings including schools, hospitals and most residential houses were severely damaged.

“Kathmandu is a busy town and people are getting on with life. In many places the rubble has been removed and temporary repairs were underway. Walking through the older districts with their brick houses, the damage from the earthquake was much more telling.

“In many smaller towns out of Kathmandu many houses were substantially damaged. In one town we found that 40% of all modern buildings and over 80% of older houses collapsed. Many buildings were also severely tilted or partially collapsed with people, motorbikes and incredibly some cars trying to negotiate these narrow passages between damaged buildings, which often were used as shelters and shops.”

“In the rural community the damage was even more devastating. Many older stone and mud mortar houses were completely destroyed. In one instance we drove for hours without seeing any undamaged houses. Further, rock fall and landslides damaged access to outlying villages with many still cut off some six weeks after the earthquake.”

Earthquake engineering in Nepal

A small township, Singati, where large boulders buried the main road and impacted several houses.

Dr Kupec’s group made a presentation on their observations to local and central Government officials at the end of their visit.

“I feel that we achieved quite a lot in the few days we were in the country. Government officials took part in our discussions, but based on my time at CERA (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) they are not aware how much effort is ahead of them to successfully recover from this earthquake.

“The main discussion was on the building code and what they need to change. The reality is that they may not need a new building code, instead they should start using the one they have but rarely administer as evidenced by the fact most houses are unengineered.”

Lanning said that there is going to be a massive rebuild in Nepal and there is an opportunity now for an education programme on building techniques and codes and for a study like the one he is involved with to identify mechanisms for increasing adoption and compliance of the building codes.

“Codes in developing countries often replicate those in more developed countries without appropriate local adaptation. Even inside countries, conditions vary from one province to another. It’s not a ‘one cap fits all’ scenario, but the cap does need to take into consideration the extra costs and skills needed to ensure buildings are safe.

“There is a great opportunity now to make a difference for future generations. Ideally it would be great to get up there soon and to assist with putting in place the study that we are presently undertaking.”


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