Yesterday's earthquake off the shores of Honshu is one of the most powerful in Japan's history, and yet the death toll is remarkably small compared to that caused by smaller quakes in China and Haiti. The same is true of the recent earthquakes in New Zealand and Chile, which, though quite deadly, were not nearly as devastating as comparable events in the developing world. The key difference between these contexts - the difference between life and death - is each country's preparation for natural disasters. A big part of that preparation is effective building codes and inspections.
Building codes are registers of tragedy translated into empirical figures.
They are as chilling to read as actuarial tables, and their dispassionate prose masks their origins in moments of grief and anguish. Every requirement in our local, state, national and international codes was provoked by some event - a fire, an epidemic - whose deadly effects could have been mitigated by better building practices. There isn't an architect or builder alive who hasn't complained loudly about our local building inspectors, but we all know why the codes are there. After all, I have no doubt a building we design will protect its inhabitants, but I have no way of knowing how my neighbor's house will react when the winds hit 140mph, or when they accidentally drop a microwave into a bathtub full of water. That's where the code steps in to protect me and anyone I care about.
At a moment when a newly empowered political movement seeks to all-but end public oversight and regulation of private activities that impact the public realm, it is worth reflecting on how building codes and inspections in Japan, New Zealand and Chile saved lives. The engineers, architects and public servants who developed those codes deserve some thanks.
update: the Gray Lady apparently reads Tin Box.