A furor has arisen in Japan over an architect accused of producing buildings that don’t meet earthquake building codes, underlining worldwide concerns in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
Hidetsugu Aneha, a prominent Japanese architect, is said to have designed more than 20 buildings over the last decade that would not withstand a moderate earthquake, doing so to cut costs and win more commissions, the New York Times reported Saturday.
The issue has become a cause celebre, media accounts said, with seven hotels being forced to close, including a 260-room tower that opened in August near the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Many of the buildings Aneha worked on were apartment buildings, reports said.
Disaster prevention is increasingly a part of global consciousness, especially in light of events such as Hurricane Katrina and the severe temblor that assaulted the port of Kobe, Japan, 10 years ago, killing some 6,000 people.
Though none of the buildings designed by Aneha have failed, concerns about the buildings’ safety are very real, experts said.
Because of the rate at which earthquakes occur in Japan and its population density – about five times that of California – the country’s exposure to earthquake risk is about 20 times that of California, according to Bob Urhammer, a seismologist with the University of California Seismological Laboratory.
“The problem in an earthquake with strong ground shaking is falling objects,” Urhammer said. “That’s how people get injured or killed. Buildings are potentially large falling objects. That could result in a substantial toll of death and injury.”
Though Japan has strict building codes, the codes weren’t well enforced by inspection companies, reports said. Urhammer said the story is not unique.
“Enforcement of building codes is an issue around the world,” the seismologist said. “The countries may have good building codes, but the issue is whether they’re properly inspected or enforced.”
An engineer with the California Seismic Safety Commission agreed.
“It’s a worldwide issue in earthquake-prone areas. Quality assurance and compliance is not always met. Damage is often because of poor quality and shoddy construction,” said Fred Turner, who co-authored a report on one of California’s worst earthquakes, the 1994 Northridge quake in Los Angeles.
“Interestingly, we believe California has similar quality control concerns,” The engineer said. “Excess damage to buildings in past California earthquakes comes from poor quality in design and construction and lack of code enforcement.”
Both California and Japan, highly earthquake-prone areas, have strict building codes, Turner said. “The issue is that the government is not enforcing these codes. This is the kind of thing that could be caught with rigorous enforcement.”
A Los Angeles County architect disagreed. “The City of Los Angeles inspection department is very on top of it, making sure that the most advanced engineering requirements are met in the processing of permits,” said William Hablinski, founding partner of Hablinski + Manion, a luxury housing firm.
Regardless, experts agreed that Japan’s strict building codes need more rigorous enforcement.
“Clearly, their government’s going to have to bring more serious oversight to the process,” said Dana Buntrock, a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley specializing in Japanese architecture.
The professor said in Japan there are two kinds of checks and balances to ensure that buildings are built according to code. First, there are professional checks and balances as the various members of the team – architect, structural designer and contractor – work together. Second, there are governmental checks and balances, she said.
Buntrock believes one reason the designs escaped the professional checks and balances could be because the contractors involved were smaller and might not have had their own internal designers.
As for the governmental checks and balances: “The next check is that the government of Japan will check the plans or have secondary plan check authorities do it. Such private sector companies have grown up in the past five years, since 1999, and are responsible for checking the calculations on a project and making sure they are up to spec,” Buntrock said.
“Many people have said these new companies range in quality and the ones that are most popular are the ones that are inexpensive and will quickly turn around their checks. They may be doing so by not doing a thorough check of the calculations,” she said. “The vast majority of substandard buildings in this case were reviewed by these private sector companies.”
Six of the buildings had been checked by local government authorities, Buntrock said, “and those don’t seem to have been actually checked; they seem to have been rubber-stamped.”
In light of the scandal, Buntrock predicts that the government will adopt a more proactive overseer role and probably take back some of the reviews from the private sector.
“They’ve (the government) said they will increase their supervision of these private plan check authorities,” Buntrock said.
Such action could help combat what Turner and Urhammer see as a widespread enforcement problem. Along those lines, a senior engineering geologist said the investigation could lead to positive results.
“The building didn’t fall down first. No one was injured,” said Bob Anderson of the California Seismic Safety Commission. “It sounds like they caught one here, which would be positive.”
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