It is not until an earthquake occurs and causes damage that the public starts paying attention to construction safety and the quake resistance of buildings. Following each string of massive earthquakes, the government has initiated post-quake investigations, reviews and evaluations, as well as rounds of studies conducted by academics, professional technicians and engineers.
Based on these investigative reports, the government has gradually reinforced regulations on the seismic design specifications for buildings, home safety proposals, measures for evaluating and bolstering earthquake resistance and the Statute for Expediting Reconstruction of Urban Unsafe and Old Buildings (都市危險及老舊建築物加速重建條例), in the hope of encouraging citizens to apply for quake-resistance evaluations of privately owned buildings. When a structure is deemed insufficiently quake resistant, it is to be structurally reinforced or reconstructed, to guarantee the personal safety of the residents of all buildings.
There are obstacles in implementing these measures, not least because they inevitably involve private property rights. If the government were to make evaluation of buildings’ quake resistance mandatory, it would have to factor in the cost of conducting such evaluations. The real concern is not so much the additional cost in the administrative budget as the potential for a fall in property prices when potential structural safety problems are discovered during such evaluations.
What is more, the sheer cost and time that would need to be spent to structurally reinforce or reconstruct buildings poses particular challenges, as it would require bringing together the residents and multiple owners of an apartment building, and there is of course the likelihood that less well-off residents would be able to afford neither the time nor the financial burden such changes might incur.
There are, for example, many communities whose buildings are made of sub-standard concrete, so-called “sea-sand buildings,” which have long been deemed highly problematic, but little has been done to reinforce or reconstruct these buildings. Policies to reinforce structural quake resistance instituted by the government, with the accompanying incentives and measures, are positive steps, yet it is extremely difficult to meet everyone’s requirements.
On Feb. 26, the Executive Yuan held a news conference on the matter, during which it announced a five-point plan including expedited screening, quake-resistance assessments, reinforcement and reconstruction of dangerous buildings, staged structural improvements and financial assistance measures.
At the conference, the Cabinet said that expedited screening would target buildings constructed before Dec. 31, 1999 — when a more stringent construction code was introduced following the devastating 921 Earthquake — to filter out buildings with higher potential risks.
The Cabinet also said it plans to revise Article 77 of the Building Act (建築法) to allow the government to order compulsory reconstruction or reinforcement of building structures that do not comply with the act; to require the provision of fire prevention and escape facilities, as well as fire-fighting equipment, as stipulated in the latest version of the act; and to fine owners for non-compliance.
The proposals raised concerns among the public, with some asking who would be responsible if property prices were hit after safety concerns are raised as a result of the evaluations, while others said such checks would do little good if people could not afford to pay for improvements.
Concerns were also expressed that the expedited screening would only apply to buildings of nine stories or more, as if to suggest that buildings with seven or eight floors could be ignored. Critics said that any measures could not be piecemeal in nature, but must be comprehensive and complete. In the face of such concerns, the government must review its proposals and clarify them to the public, to address people’s doubts.
Like Taiwan, Japan is located in an earthquake-prone area. It has learned difficult lessons from earthquake disasters in the past, and has gradually revised and raised quake-resistance standards for buildings.
In view of housing quality and safety concerns, the Japanese government over the past few years has promulgated a Housing Quality Assurance Act and a Long-term Excellent Housing Act. With the implementation of the former, the Japanese government required a 10-year defect warranty provided by sellers on the basic structure of newly built houses and established standards for housing performance and evaluation methods; the latter reduced taxes and loans for buildings deemed to be of “long-term excellent quality.”
Moreover, there exists among the Japanese public, the country’s construction sector and its government an acute awareness of disaster prevention and the whole country is willing to collaborate to ensure that quake-resistance standards on housing are met.
In this regard, the Taiwanese public is far behind. While the government consistently introduces policies and amendments each time an earthquake strikes in the hope of enhancing housing quality, safety and quake resistance, the public seldom looks beyond possible devaluation of their homes or the price of reconstruction and structure enhancement.
Between groupthink and fights over individual interest, the Taiwanese public prefers to risk living in non-quake-resistant buildings, blocking the promotion and implementation of policies designed to enhance the quake-resistance of existing buildings.
This situation where personal interests take precedence over safety is common in Taiwan, and signifies a lag behind Japan and a much lower awareness of disaster prevention, which the Japanese public prioritizes over its own interest.
If people in Taiwan keep evading responsibility and overlooking the possible consequences, unwilling to address public safety hazards, large-scale earthquakes might wreak still more havoc on the nation.
It is important to plan policies so that implementation is paced according to a careful prioritization of the urgency of different measures.
The government expects the “expedited screening” of buildings higher than nine stories and constructed before the 921 Earthquake to be completed this year and similar checks of all other pre-921 Earthquake buildings of six to eight stories are to be performed within three years. If there are grounds to doubt a building’s quake resistance, a mandatory evaluation is to be undertaken.
Meanwhile, the government is about to draft new amendments that would make structural reinforcement and reconstruction mandatory. These measures are among the plans for the short to mid-term.
However, short-term efforts need to be intensified: As “expedited screening” is efficiency-oriented and only counts as preliminary evaluation, it is still advisable to subject buildings constructed before the 921 Earthquake to more thorough examination to exclude the possibility of low quake resistance even if a building appeared to be safe during expedited screening.
As for long-term policies, the three levels of the construction management system should be applied more thoroughly. Also, structural designs covering the building’s whole lifespan, along with construction and maintenance management records, should all be included as essential elements that comprise the construction safety record.
Long-term plans should also include road maps for disaster rescue missions and regulations that prohibit or limit the construction of buildings in seismically active areas, as well as plans to designate where existing buildings would be required to raise their quake resistance.
Most importantly, the government should promote public awareness of disaster prevention more actively so that the public would hopefully confront the potential dangers of earthquakes together with the government and become more willing to comply with preventive policies designated to enhance quake resistance in existing buildings.
More mutual understanding, consultation and discussion between authorities and the public would help dispel doubts, greatly reduce the damage caused by large-scale earthquakes and enhance public safety.
Chuang Chun-wei is a professional civil engineer.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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