Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why buildings matter

Undeniably lovely, but would you want to be here in an earthquake?

One of my favorite type of article in Mother Earth News is when they feature someone who has, by the sweat of his or her own brow, built the house they live in.  Some houses are made with old-style adobe bricks, some are made with straw bales, others are built into hillsides like hobbit homes. Most are adorned with lovely stonework, nice floors and natural wood beams, and look quite idyllic, at least to me.

Someday I'd love to build something like that -- lay out a mere 20 grand or so for materials, and with the help of friends and neighbors, build a home of our own design, using some very cool old-style method to do it. And then live in it forever.

And then I see something on the news like what happened yesterday in Nepal. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which would be pretty bad in a first-world city, but is totally catastrophic in a third-world one. I see the collapsed buildings, the bricks scattered in the streets, and see the news footage of rescue workers trying to dig out those who have been buried alive.

And suddenly I am very thankful for the 2 x 6 wood frame of our house and the steel straps that bolt it to the concrete foundation, because of course we live in earthquake country and know exactly what the shaking of a major earthquake feels like.  Because the one thing you realize once you've lived here is that it matters -- very much -- what kind of house you live in and what kind of building you work in. 

We talk a lot in the homesteading world about preparedness -- we have our emergency kits, our canned goods, our solar ovens and our generators -- but we often don't think about the structural risks occurring within the buildings where we live and work.  When I traveled to Mexico on a business trip many years ago with a boyfriend who was doing a laser light installation in a large discotheque,  he called me up a ladder to look at the crawlspace above the ceiling while doing the installation.  Between the walls and in the crawlspace, everything was piled high with dry straw, used for insulation and soundproofing.  "If there's ever a fire," he said, "this place will go up like a haystack."

It was a sobering shock to realize that other countries do not have the same building codes as we do, but in disaster after disaster you can see it -- in everything from cyclones to earthquakes to fires...what would cause moderate damage and no loss of life in the States causes nothing but those things less-economically blessed countries abroad. All because of the building codes.

And so, while we pray and hope for recovery for all those caught in this terrible disaster, it should also be a reminder to keep building safety in mind both at home and while traveling.  Choosing a boring 2 x 6 wood frame house is uninventive, but I like to think it will keep us alive in a disaster.  Choosing a modern hotel when traveling, built to first-world standards, might be more boring than staying in a 16th century monastery, but if I had to take bets on which would be standing after a quake I know where I'd put my money.

Being prepared means not only preparing with goods, water, flashlights, etc, but also in choosing structurally sound homes -- and the same goes when we are traveling and staying in hotels, pensions, B & Bs or hostels. No one can predict the odds of your just being in a bad place at the wrong time, but anything you can do to improve those odds is a good thing, right?

In the name of safety I'm willing to be a little boring in where I lay my head and eat my meals. 


  1. Such a tragedy that in an area where something like this was likely the structures were not remotely able to cope. I always like those articles in MEN too...although I usually think they should consider a little more effort to make them attractive!

    1. Some ARE very basic, I know, but there have been a few I have seen that were amazingly charming and lovely. In the top photo above, for instance, I just love those little round windows everywhere! But, you know, not so charming if the whole place collapses in the first disaster. I wonder if these people really consider that when they are building or are just making sure the walls are straight and will stand up lol.