How to turn disaster into awareness into a difference the next time?

Looking at events like Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, one of the natural responses is to think, “Well, there’s no way you could’ve prepared for that.” And to a degree, that’s right - certainly if by “prepare” you mean be ready to totally prevent or counteract. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in.

But even as some local Japanese officials were considering the possibility that their fairly new, very expensive seawalls may be a waste of money and may not be the best use of emergency planning funds, we know that preparation does pay off - somewhere, to some meaningful degree, pretty much every time.

One press release we received in the days following the disaster came from the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), encouraging us to take the catastrophe as a wake-up call to examine the adequacy of our own planning for such events,.

NIBS does a lot of different things pertaining to avoiding the worst in very bad situations, including to coordinate a Building Seismic Safety Council to create provisions used by my jurisdictions as a technical resource. They were also involved in a report a few years ago (“Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: An Independent Study to Assess the Future Savings from Mitigation Activities”). One of the report’s conclusions was that every dollar spent on mitigation saves four dollars in avoided future losses.


Another NIBS program is the Whole Building Design Guide, found online In the name of maintaining a whole-building perspective, an article worth looking over in their resources section is “Seismic Design Principles” by Gabor Lorant, FAIA. It’s a quick tour of seismic causes and effects (including a U.S. map of affected zones), strategies, and devices.

HVAC equipment is considered “nonstructural” in this sense. But as Lorant points out, this isn’t a place to skimp on precautions since “loss arising from nonstructural damage can be a multiple of the structural losses.”

With mission critical HVAC on our minds this month, it’s impossible not to consider the extra repercussions that especially sensitive facilities are vulnerable to, whether in terms of finance and information from a societal organization perspective (data centers) or in simple human terms (hospitals and their particular population come to mind).

Speaking of mission critical, the article prior to Lavant’s in that WBDG section just happens to be “Security and Safety In Labs,” contributed by Daniel Watch and Deepa Tolat last year. Again, not strictly HVAC, but decent reading in addition to the standard ASHRAE and other familiar guidance, to help round out your perspective in the ever-increasingly integrated nature of building design.

Oh, and I also came across “IBC Seismic Requirements and HVAC Systems - A Short Course.” Published by McQuay, this is a five-page guide (sitting alongside one ad, but written in neutral language) with content a little closer to home, professionally speaking. You can find it most quickly by Googling “seismic HVAC design standard.”

Whether you play a role in the building code or standard creation process, or in designing or maintaining those buildings, let the awe at this latest catastrophe reinforce the resolve to protect your buildings from what may come but hopefully won’t. Certain Japanese footage may suggest that we ultimately can’t make much difference in the face of such force, but a whole lot of footage from Haiti’s last earthquake reminds us that we can.ES