Renewed calls for T&T building codes in face of earthquake threat
Former chairman of the National Building Code Committee, Shyankaran Lalla, says up to 80 percent of the country’s infrastructure could be destroyed by a powerful earthquake if Government continues without enforceable building codes.
Speaking to LoopTT, Lalla said effective national disaster preparedness is impossible without legislating proper building codes to prepare for national disasters such as earthquakes.
He added that if a powerful earthquake were to occur, the destruction of the country’s industrial sector would be catastrophic.
“The danger of an earthquake lies not just in its magnitude but in the duration. If an earthquake goes for over 30 seconds you start to get serious damage.”
“If we had an earthquake over magnitude seven, we would see some serious structural damage. 80 percent of our building stock is at risk as well as the entire petrochemical sector.”
“We have natural gas lines, ammonia, etc., just imagine these things being ruptured, catching on fire…if the Point Lisas facility is destroyed we would become like Haiti…that’s between $60 billion to $80 billion needed to rebuild Trinidad and Tobago,” he said.
Lalla's comments follow that of Seismologist and head of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre, Dr Joan Latchman, who confirmed that Trinidad and Tobago is at risk for a powerful earthquake.
(Photo: Mexico suffered severe damage from a 7.1 earthquake in September 2017.)
Building codes unenforceable
Lalla said the problem lies in the enforceability of the country's building codes.
“The local building sector and the Town and Country Planning Division do not have anything that they can enforce as far as a building code is concerned. All they have are building regulations and those are not codes."
“So you could tell someone ‘build 18 feet away from the road’ or ‘build eight feet away from the neighbour’s yard’, but you don’t have a code which points to how to design the building and how to build it safely.”
He added that although Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards has a Small Building Guide he said people are confusing this with a national building code.
“A guide and a code are two different things…our engineers have been using the international building code by convention because they know it’s the best thing to do, it’s best practice, but legally, we do not have a building code in Trinidad and Tobago,” he said.
Lalla said that the Committee advocated for adapting the International Building Code (IBC) for use by law within Trinidad and Tobago, however he said since their recommendation in 2015, no changes to the laws have been made.
(Photo: Dominica suffered severe damage after a 6.0 earthquake in 2004.)
Lalla: HDC houses not build to international specifications
He said that based on the committee’s findings, many houses are not built to IBC standards.
“80 percent of our housing stock, the majority of which is built by HDC (Housing Development Corporation), is at risk because they have not been designed or do not meet the requirement of the International Building Code."
Lalla added that many of the cousigned disaster shelters may not meet the IBC's requirements either.
“Most, if not all, of our disaster shelters do not meet the seismic code requirements,” he said.
Lalla said that the IBC may also help to address the country’s flooding issue.
“Building codes also have, within them, provisions to deal with excess flooding and we had all that flooding…part of the problem lies within the country’s building codes. One wonders why Government does not want a building code?”
He added however that for existing buildings which do not meet IBC specifications, there are provisions in the codes to allow for retrofitting buildings.
“For example if you have an old building we can fix it up to make it a little stronger and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, there are certain things that the engineer may tell you to put in place in order to strengthen the building.”
He said the concern many structural engineers have with continuous earthquakes lies in the unseen wear and tear on building’s foundation.
(Photo: A local supermarket experienced some damage after a 6.1 earthquake shook the island in 2016).
“You have structural damage that is taking place that goes unnoticed to the inexperienced eye, and you will find that tomorrow you might get a 6.5 earthquake and whole lot of buildings might collapse."
“Your buildings are concrete, they are not designed to move a whole lot so you will have small cracks taking place, and although they look small, these cracks are penetrating deeper and deeper, weakening the structure.”
“When you have an earthquake of a higher magnitude, you may have buildings collapsing and probably killing people.”
“Building codes point to preventative measures and reduction measures. This is the risk reduction aspect,” he said.
Lalla also referred to the impending collapse of various bridges in parts of the country which may present another hazard for citizens.
He said the former UNC Government signed an agreement with the International Code Council (ICC) to adopt the IBC, however, they never paid the fee of US$20,000 for use of the material.
He said although the money was approved by Cabinet, it was never paid to the ICC.
“The ICC indicated that they are willing to collaborate and work with Government in putting that in place. We would have had a building code a long time ago if the last administration was an efficient administration. Jamaica is also moving ahead to adopt the IBC,” he said.
(Photo: The Point Lisas Industrial Estate.)
Lalla said however there’s no need to spend additional funds to ‘reinvent the wheel’.
“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel; the IBC codes are there, it is reviewed every three years and our engineers can participate in the review process just by becoming a member of the ICC and a lot of them are already,” he said.
Government: It’s a process
Minister of Planning and Development, Camille Robinson-Regis, said to LoopTT that at the moment, the responsibility for building codes lies under the portfolio of the Ministry of Housing, however there are plans to take a note to Cabinet to have this portfolio moved to the Ministry of Planning.
Robinson-Regis said this will allow her Ministry to oversee this alongside the Trinidad and Tobago Seismic Microzonation Studies Project, started in 2013 by the University of the West Indies (UWI) Seismic Research Centre), which seeks to collect and study earthquake hazard maps over a ten-year period.
She added that although building codes are not officially in place, approvals given by the Town and Country Planning Division, Trinidad and Tobago Fire Service, as well as the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government, all follow a level of building codes in keeping with the California code.
“All the codes being executed by the various entities are given in specified regulations with which there must be compliance. What the national building code will ensure is greater cooperation and alignment to standards and compliance and assist with improving standards across the construction sector,” she said.