Few would dispute that when confronted with Mother Nature’s awesome violence, human beings seem to be terrifyingly vulnerable and perishable creatures. While we share with other animals a mortal and easily-harmed body, one thing distinguishes humanity: a refusal to bow to fate. The human capacity for ingenuity has helped us manage some of the worst catastrophes nature has thrown at us, and engineers and architects have been especially innovative in developing daringly clever technologies and designs for buildings that can survive the tumults the earth and its occasionally savage climate hurls at them.
Take the massive earthquake that hit Japan in March 2011. In a less-technologically advanced era, it would have caused devastation. In fact, it caused far less destruction than many had feared. Japan is in an earthquake zone, and that means that its buildings, especially skyscrapers, have been designed and engineered according to the most stringent building codes. For one thing, they sway slightly to alleviate the shock; for another, they’re constructed with extra-deep foundations and massive shock absorbers. The tempestuous energy erupting through the earthquake gets soaked up harmlessly by these structural features. Modern buildings bend, but they don’t break.
We now know that fixed-based buildings that are built directly on the ground in an earthquake zone will move with the quake when it strikes, sustaining enormous damage and even destruction as a result. However, buildings in high-risk areas in New Zealand, Japan, Italy, India and the US have incorporated base-isolators in their design: flexible bearings or pads above which the building rests. They work like a car’s suspension, absorbing the energy of the quake so that the building itself hardly moves.
Other tall buildings incorporate ‘tuned mass dampers’ in their structure: vast concrete blocks or steel bodies taking the form of an enormous pendulum (or suspended in fluid or by springs) that move in opposition to resonance frequency oscillations induced in the building by high winds or earthquakes. They hugely reduce the amplitude of these mechanical vibrations, preventing inhabitants from suffering unpleasant or frightening experiences and sparing the building from damage.
Disaster-proofing doesn’t end there. Modern buildings are increasingly being built with shape-memory alloys or “smart metals” that “remember” their original shape after deformation, readily returning to “normal” when the deforming forces cease.
There’s more: when Hurricane Katrina decimated most of New Orleans in 2005, building experts (among them, Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right Foundation”) developed affordable, storm-resistant housing to ensure that such human suffering never happened again. One of these innovations is “The Float House” – a small home with a chassis fashioned out of polystyrene foam coated with glass-reinforced concrete. When the floodwaters come, it turns into a life-raft, floating up to 12 feet on two guideposts to ensure it won’t drift away.
Other buildings in areas prone to flooding are now elevated on sturdy props a full story above the ground: should a hurricane-inducing flood or a tsunami strike, the water will pass harmlessly beneath the building.
Other cutting-edge disaster-proofing designs utilize solar power to ensure energy if a disaster cuts the supply. The weirdly beautiful All-Seasons Tent Tower design by OFI Architecture is a case in point: looking like a man-made volcano, it’s powered by solar energy and has a mesh skin that regulates temperature by filtering sunlight, protecting its inhabitants from earthquake harm by means of a system of huge concrete tuned mass dampers.
There are other options besides architectural innovation that also come under the rubric “disaster protection.” If you’re running a business and a natural or even man-made disaster strikes, there’s a high chance that you’ll suffer extended down time. Disasters disrupt business continuity. However, if you’re prescient enough to invest in a disaster recovery plan, you can spare yourself lost productivity and lost income. Also, thanks to specialist business continuity companies like Agile Recovery, these options are affordable for businesses of all sizes. Services such as the “Ready Suite” solution only charges out-of-pocket expenses: for example, if you needed a computer server or a generator. Expert technicians are at hand to help manage your recovery. Even temporary office space can be created for your staff should you need it. So should you fall short in a disaster, seeking out such companies can help you get back on track and back in business.
Disaster-proofing is already sparing lives and preventing massive disruptions to business continuity, but no technological system is fool-proof. Business continuity systems ensure that even a disaster-disrupted business can go on operating until the mess is cleaned up.