Why build better? Making a case for seismic resiliency in the US

A quick look at the article: Porter, K. A. (2021). Should we build better? The case for resilient earthquake design in the United States. Earthquake Spectra, 37(1), 523-544.

Buildings, and other elements in our infrastructure, are essentially a product. These products meet certain regulations (AKA building codes) to be usable by the public. The focus of these regulations is on safety. While safety standards are important, they are not the only things we care about: we want our phones not to explode because of overheating, but most certainly, this is not our only criteria to buy a phone. Meanwhile, in a hypothetical society where the buyers only care about phones not exploding, the phone companies would probably make very similar products to satisfy customers. After all, why bother with 5g, curvy displays, and sleek looks if the customers only want a “safe” phone?

Let’s assume that the customers only care about the building’s safety. But what does “safety” mean in this context? The building codes aim to provide life safety against collapse in the case of extreme shaking, which means the buildings should not kill occupants when the big one happens. Will the building be damaged beyond repair? Most probably yes. Is it possible that a ceiling panel falls on occupants and severely injures them? Yes.  Is it possible to design in a way that none of these two scenarios happen, even if a big one occurs? The answer is again yes. Yet, going back to the analogy of phone companies, the building industry tends to meet only life safety. The argument is often that the customers don’t want to pay the extra cost for the extra options.  

What is this paper addressing?

Does it make sense to invest more to build better? If so, what can the building industry do?

A quick wrap-up of the results

  1. Building better than code minimum substantially reduces impaired building after an earthquake.
(a) Meeting life safety objective (b) building 50% stronger for a hypothetical large earthquake scenario. The percentage of impaired buildings is reduced from 25% to 6%! (adopted from Porter (2021)

2. The added cost does not change the real estate market very much.

3. Each 1$ added cost saves 4$ on average ( Life safety design saves developers 1.2 billion dollars per year in up-front cost, but society loses 4.3 billion dollars in the long run)

4. Building stiffer and stronger buildings makes sense in much of the US: one in five Americans live in a country where building better matters

What can building better achieve in the US. Adopted from Porter (2021)

What I like about this paper

This paper is a joy to read from a seismic design perspective as it connects the importance of seismic design to the bigger societal needs. Besides the rationales to make a case for a resilient design, there is a lot of history and backstories scattered in this piece (for example see the section on ethical considerations) and greatly helps with developing a bigger picture about seismic design and construction.

Additional papers in this topic

Davis, M., & Porter, K. (2016). The public’s role in seismic design provisions. Earthquake Spectra32(3), 1345-1361.

Porter, K. A. (2016). Safe enough? A building code to protect our cities and our lives. Earthquake Spectra32(2), 677-695.

Porter, K. A. (2016). Safe enough? A building code to protect our cities and our lives. Earthquake Spectra32(2), 677-695.

One thought on “Why build better? Making a case for seismic resiliency in the US

  1. When I read this paper, I felt like I should design column with 50% increase in stiffness. Good paper, we have never thought from the economic viewpoint. we only talked about life-safety and collapse.


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