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Beat the shake: Can we earthquake proof New Zealand?

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Earthquakes have rocked New Zealand for centuries and no matter how well we prepare for them, we still find ourselves counting the costs. 2011’s Christchurch earthquake was one of New Zealand’s deadliest natural disasters, claiming 185 lives and destroying thousands of buildings, many of which held heritage status. We are dubbed the shaky isles for a reason, but we need to find more ways of dealing with earthquakes.

It’s clear that most of our buildings need a seismic upgrade to make them more resistant during an earthquake. One of the main causes of injury and death during the Christchurch earthquake was unreinforced masonry buildings. These structures are vulnerable to collapse in earthquakes, because they are made from concrete blocks and natural stone units, without any reinforced elements such as steel. These types of buildings are found all over the country, as well as throughout the world.

Unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings are something lawmakers had previously overlooked. However, it’s a different story in California, as in 1986 they passed a law requiring all URM buildings to adopt measures to reduce risk of collapse. Churches are also vulnerable to earthquakes as they are tall structures with large internal spaces. They don’t have a good track record of withstanding large earthquakes, as we can see from the Christ Church Cathedral which was severely damaged.

Academics, architects and researchers are all striving to make buildings safer and to survive the effects of earthquakes. Today, a new cardboard structure has been built in Christchurch. It’s made from 98 giant cardboard tubes, which are coated with layers of waterproof material called polyurethane. Cardboard and wood materials are naturally more earthquake resistant, due to their flexibility, whilst offering more strength and durability. The church is designed to last 50 years and can withstand 1.2g of lateral force. The building was opened in 2013 and designed by Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban. So, this shows the potential to use cardboard more going into the future as a way of making earthquake-proof buildings.

Also, researchers at the University of Canterbury have looked for ways to create buildings that can withstand earthquakes. They erected a two-story building prototype and stimulated one of the world’s most powerful quakes to test its level of earthquake resistance. This research team are among many who are racing towards finding new technologies and designs for full earthquake-proof buildings.

Geoff Rodgers and his team of associates at the University of Canterbury are testing steel beams to see if they can safely shift and slide under pressure. There will always be earthquakes in New Zealand, but we are constantly making substantial efforts to protect our nation and buildings from future disaster.

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