Japan and Building Codes

March 12th, 2011

About a week ago, Sachi and I visited the offices of the firm that built our house. We saw videos showing the engineering technologies to protect against quake damage. The two I recall specifically are wall panels that protect against structure collapse, and structural posts which keep the building from separating from its foundations.

An article from the New York Times says that Japan’s strict building codes probably saved a lot of lives:

In Japan, where earthquakes are far more common than they are in the United States, the building codes have long been much more stringent on specific matters like how much a building may sway during a quake. …

Japan has gone much further than the United States in outfitting new buildings with advanced devices called base isolation pads and energy dissipation units to dampen the ground’s shaking during an earthquake.

The isolation devices are essentially giant rubber-and-steel pads that are installed at the very bottom of the excavation for a building, which then simply sits on top of the pads. The dissipation units are built into a building’s structural skeleton. They are hydraulic cylinders that elongate and contract as the building sways, sapping the motion of energy. …

New apartment and office developments in Japan flaunt their seismic resistance as a marketing technique, a fact that has accelerated the use of the latest technologies, said Ronald O. Hamburger, a structural engineer in the civil engineering society and Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, a San Francisco engineering firm.

Later today, I’ll be driving over to the new house to check it out, but I will be very surprised if it shows any damage.

I would, however, like to make a small political point here. The building codes and other rules that saved so many lives? That’s what you call “government regulation.” The purpose of which is not to stifle or dominate, but to protect and safeguard. In this case, it kept people from dying as much. In other cases, it safeguards against damage done by people and corporations. Regulation, far more often than not, is a good thing.

  1. Troy
    March 12th, 2011 at 14:53 | #1

    less regulations = more FreedomRubble!

    People are perfectly able to determine how much they want to pay to have a survivable house. Americans don’t want point-headed elites telling them how to build their houses. Nobody in the 19th century bothered with that and look at all the houses that still survive from then.

  2. Troy
    March 12th, 2011 at 15:24 | #2

    Oh man, Rikuzen Takata got wiped off the map yesterday (video from this morning)

    Even their website is gone:



    Looks just like Hiroshima.

    Looking at the map, you can see it was right at the end of a long sound which seems to have funneled the tsunami — the video shows all the bridges were washed away. . .

    I think this disaster is going to have killed more people than the 1995 Hanshin quake, unless Japan’s tsunami evacuation response was really on the ball.

    I wonder how Sendai City got through it. They were really close.

    There was one video that was interesting, somebody in Nakano-ku had his computer on and had a 30-second warning from the s-wave warning system:


  3. Charles
    March 12th, 2011 at 15:30 | #3

    I would have to agree with you Luis. It was terrifying to be in a building swaying side to side and hearing it creak and crack, but what a relief to see that when it stopped that no buildings had fallen. Here is a case where if you let people have the freedom to do as they please their choice is going to mean fires and falling rubble, and then, of course, the government will have to go rescue them and others affected and society will pay a for a bunch of the external costs that their “freedom” lets them disregard.

  4. Troy
    March 12th, 2011 at 16:07 | #4

    And if my crack-pot theories about land economics are correct, the more we are forced to invest in quality, survivable housing the less we have left over to bid-up the price of the lot it sits on, meaning we get the better housing for free.

    neoclassical economics does not admit the possibility of a free lunch, but they intentionally minimize if not ignore altogether the critical nature of land in economics.

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