Is my habitat earthquake proof?

The recent human tragedy in Nepal caused by a 7.9 magnitude earthquake is still unfolding. And while we do what we can to help and pray for our neighbours, through every mind that felt the tremors passes at least once the same thought – “is my habitat earthquake proof?”

More than half of India falls in the moderate to high seismic activity zones. With the speed of and need for urbanization, development and construction activity has been at its peak, ever increasing the risk of damages in case of a similar calamity.

Our design standards and building codes provide for the building to be seismically stable and for the best of guidelines and design parameters. All well-known & reputed developers and structural designers ensure compliance to these building standards & codes, which address the stability of a building in case of an earthquake. The design is done in accordance to the guidelines of IS 1893 (Criteria for Earthquake resistant deign of Structures) and the other relevant IS codes like IS456, and IS 13920. Earthquake loading, seismic zones, soil type, building loads are all given due cognizance as per the guiding codes. State-of-the-art softwares like STAAD Pro/E-Tabs are used for simulating and designing the various load conditions on the buildings. On critical and big volume projects, the drawings are typically double checked through a 3rd party proof structural consultant to avoid any inadvertent errors. The execution of these designs is handled by professional construction management teams. The statutory approval process also asks for a design vetted report from IIT or reputed institutions as a final level of check.  

However the problem area lies with unauthorised and unplanned construction wherein such parameters are not followed adequately. The reputed and professional developers lobby is minuscule in comparison to the extent of overall development happening across all major cities & towns. Our system relies on the primary responsibility and undertaking of developers, architects, and structural consultants whereas a stringent regulatory check on completed buildings prior to occupancy, is found wanting. There is no mechanism to enforce a process of safety certification of buildings or to check structural compliance with originally approved drawings/design. This scenario is worrisome and needs to change, and change fast.

At a policy level the Government should invest more towards upgrading the gaps in the existing system to withstand natural disasters. This can be achieved by providing highly competent skill sets and expert resources to Urban Development Authority and NDMA. At the State level too, the Government needs to move towards embracing global best practices in design, engineering & construction for earthquake resistant structures. The objective should be to move from merely getting a paper clearance to creating buildings that respond to disasters much more effectively.

The Supreme Court  directive at the end of last year was more than welcome: of all the other secondary reasons and benefits it may bring, it goes a long way in increasing awareness among the general people at large and educating the masses. It allows people to understand and manage earthquake emergencies in a better way. It is a concrete step to move towards a performance based design methodology. It puts a lot more onus on the developers and the structural designers to make sure that the designed structure fulfills the various categories. It also creates a market place wherein the developers are incentivized w.r.t. sales, marketability for providing a better earthquake resistant, secure building to its occupants. The public by large will pick better structural buildings over the average ones.

However the limitation, likely at this moment is awareness at large and it may take some time for the developers and consultants to get in sync with this. The structural consultants design buildings as per the guidelines of the Bureau of Indian Standards and are classified in accordance to Zone II, III, IV and V.  The four categories of earthquake resistant buildings in lines of FEMA are Earthquake Resistant-Operational, Earthquake Resistant-Immediate Occupancy, Earthquake Resistant-Life Safety and Earthquake Resistant-Collapse Prevention, which will be more relevant in case of this Supreme Court verdict as these are understandable to the public at large. There is a need to tie in the design in line to the existing BIS guidelines and find a common meeting ground to be able to properly classify and find actual use of this verdict. The sanctioning authorities also need to be in sync to this new development to be able to sanctify the claims made by the developers.


About the author

Saacketh Chawla, Deputy Managing Director, Colliers International India has close to 17 years of experience in the real estate & construction industry, across the globe. He has been involved with Architectural firms and Real Estate Consultancy firms, with whom he has worked in London, New York & India, across sectors.

About the co-author

Mohit Kanwar, Operatios Head (North & East), Colliers International India is a qualified Civil Engineer and Masters in Construction & Management. He is a LEED ® Accredited and PMP (USA) professional. Having walked through 15 years in the real estate ecosystem, he has had hands-on experience in project control/ management of commercial, residential and institutional real estate assignments.

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