3.1.11 Symposium @ CED

Refugees of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
On 8 March 2014, I attended a symposium at Berkeley CED, "After 3.11," convened by Berkeley Professor Dana Buntrock, that drew speakers from Japan and California. It's been almost three years since this appalling event, and the focus was on its lessons and implications.

Kyoto University's Norio Maki compared the Kobe and Tohoku earthquakes. They  were similar in terms of loss of life, but the Tohoku earthquake affected a coastline comparable to the one that stretches from SF to LA. The Tohoku earthquake zone has a much lower density than Kobe, with a declining population. The tsunami destroyed its fishing economy, also. His colleague Chiho Ochiai, a sociologist, studied a coastal village there that did better than most because its residents had a collective memory of previous tsunamis in the 1890s and 1930s.

UCLA's Hitoshi Abe
UCLA Professor Hitoshi Abe and Buntrock criticized some architects' post-3.11 efforts, arguing that it was a weak, sometimes self-aggrandizing response. (This was my interpretation, based on Abe and others' noting Toyo Ito's Golden Lion award for projects in the earthquake zone, implying a degree or self-promotion. Buntrock commented later - I posted it separately - that her and Abe's point was that collective, government-backed action is needed to get sufficient traction in the wake of a disaster. She absolves architects like Ito of self-aggrandizement, saying their efforts involved much self-sacrifice. He brought it to the Biennale, she adds, to draw attention to the plight of the people of Tohoku, as Isozaki had before him regarding Kobe.) 

Abe and Makoto Shin Watanabe of Hosei University discussed Archi-Aid, a group that helps local governments plan reconstruction and also proposes larger redevelopment projects. Archi-Aid can be seen as an attempt to address the weaknesses of architects' individual, uncoordinated actions.) Abe showed a traveling exhibit, developed by an Archi-Aid participant, with topographic models of towns and villages destroyed or damaged by the tsunami. They prompted people to contribute their detailed memories of specific places. 

Hosei University's Makoto Shin Watanabe
Watanabe showed some prototype housing Archi-Aid designed that paid careful attention to energy performance. Masayuki Mae of the University of Tokyo contrasted these initiatives with the temporary housing favored by the government, showing how poorly it performed thermally. Showing examples by Isozaki and Sejima, he said that new, stonger energy regulations will make it impossible for Japanese architects to ignore thermal performance. Berkeley's Susan Ubbelohde, who helped define the performance standard for Archi-Aid's prototype housing, noted how California has managed to lead the energy conversation in the US since the oil shock of the mid-1970s.

Kazuhiro Kasai of Tokyo Institute of Technology and David Mar of Tipping Mar in Berkeley discussed earthquake retrofitting in Japan and California, with Kasai showing small dampers, suitable for residential remodeling, and Mar describing a FEMA initiative (and online analytical tool) to address California's massive soft-story problem in older buildings. Kasai and Berkeley's Verna Terzic also discussed the relative merits of different seismic reinforcement schemes, with base isolation (BI-OCBF and BI-IMRF) doing especially well in minimizing the cost of getting a building back into operation after a seismic event.

In his wrap-up talk, George Kurumado of Takenaka, one of the Japan's largest construction companies, talked about the human and political issues around disaster preparation, including the tendency to ignore known risks because their implications are considered too costly or politically impossible. He argued for extending seismic regulations from their focus on life safety to a broader focus on resilience, nothing that the ability to come back from a disaster is crucial to business and provides a strong argument for higher building performance.

Toyo Ito and collaborators in front of a small post-3.11 project.
Just as an earthquake exposes the weaknesses of the built environment, an event like 3.11 shows in high relief the weaknesses of those responsible for immediate disaster relief and subsequent recovery. As Abe noted, a huge burden for planning the reconstruction fell on local government. This created a workload for which they were unprepared in terms of manpower and expertise. Archi-Aid sought to fill the gap, but its efforts were hobbled by other factors, including local-government resistance to spending money to achieve higher building performance. Clearly, it's not just government involvement that's needed, but the ability to see - as Rahm Emanuel famously said - that a crisis is too good an opportunity to waste.

Kurumado noted that the decision to provide a relatively low sea wall and berm around the Fukushima nuclear reactor meant that everyone else took that pattern as the standard, although it was set to a medium-risk earthquake and tsunami, not a higher-risk one that would be an issue for such a critical facility. Locating the generators in the basement was the other fatal flaw - worse, as it turns out, than the sea wall-and-berm problem.

Kurumado's comment about ignoring the obvious applies right here at home, I thought. My own house is two blocks from the Hayward Fault, overdue for another event. (The last was in the 1860s.) We joke about playing "beat the clock," but in fact the Japanese pocket damper that Professor Kasai showed got my attention, as it could bring some affordable new tech into the retrofit picture. 

As a public policy issue, 3.11 also raises the usual questions about society's willingness to prevent rather than rebuild. America loves its disasters. (Mar made a comparison between the "known factors" for high seismic damage and those leading to a heart attack.) Like the wellness movement, the current push for resilience - which sees seismic safety, energy performance, and social and business recovery as aspects of the same goal - may finally get some official muscle and cash behind it. That could led finally to the kind of preventive measures that would make sense in earthquake countries like California and Japan.


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