Put Your House In Order

Dear Readers:

From my experience in working among people in post-hazard environments, I can conclude that a stable house is the most prized possession. I have witnessed the grateful expressions of relief among those whose houses survived the tragic events.  The contrasting near hopeless expressions of misery among those whose houses were destroyed were almost unbearable.

It was after my first deployment to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, that I finally understood that the primary purpose of an elected Government is to protect, as much as possible, the residents from foreseeable harm. It is for this reason why it is absolutely essential for each Government in the hazard prone Caribbean region to regulate the residential construction building industry in their country.

The Government of Barbados took the first step in trying to protect the public from certain post-hazard misery by publishing the Barbados National Building Code in 1993 [The Fire and the Fire Chief]. That was a commendable achievement because at that time, Barbados was experiencing an economic recession and political turmoil. Fortuitously, the national building standard was in place for the unprecedented building boom that would commence one year later, in 1994

It is a national disgrace that strains the limits of irresponsibility that the Government of Barbados, against all expert advice [The Construction Horror Show], allowed an entirely unregulated 14-year building boom with respect to building standards. Of the thousands of houses built, almost all of them are vulnerable to collapse in a major earthquake [Weapons of Mass Destruction]. It is to Barbados’ tragic misfortune that it would not have cost any additional money to have constructed the life-saving shear walls that the Building Code specified [Advice for Homeowners].

By 2010, the legacy of substandard residential construction was firmly established in Barbados [Happy Birthday Building Code]. At the start of that year, an earthquake in Haiti had reportedly killed approximately 300,000 people [In Defense of the Haitian Structural Engineer]. Near the end of that year, tropical storm Tomas examined Barbados and damaged over 1,500 houses. Following the visit, our Prime Minister reportedly made the following accurate observation: “I have to confess that I was flabbergasted at the fragility of the housing accommodation in Barbados.” [$37M Tomas Bill, Nation, 13 Nov 2010] He then reportedly recommended that it was “absolutely necessary to impose building standards in Barbados”, before adding the bewildering idea that a building code was “actively under consideration”.  With such ministerial statements, a strong response was eagerly anticipated.

Approximately two years later, around the 20th anniversary of the initial publication of the National Building Code, the Government of Barbados took the strongest possible action unimaginable. Against expert advice, the Government abolished the only national standard designed to help builders construct a house that could survive earthquakes and hurricanes [Good Code Gone Bad].

This act of utter stupidity placed Barbados in the unenviable position of being perhaps the only country on the planet that did not provide some type of structural building guidance to its residents. Even in the poorest country in the world, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a homeowner could have found more relevant building standards than in Barbados. It is a national shame to which our apathy only encourages our Government to act more irresponsibly, to depths formerly thought practically unreachable.

It simply does not make any sense! Why would a Government allow an unregulated building boom, despite repeated warnings of the fatal consequences? [Is This Explicit Enough?] Why would a Government, despite acknowledging the fragility of Barbadian houses, then withdraw the only national building standard that could protect Barbadian households, despite repeated warnings of the fatal consequences? Should Barbados experience the inevitable major earthquake tomorrow, then these two actions, in retrospect, would be justifiably deemed unforgivable.

When we stand inconsolably near the rubble of our child’s collapsed school, or when we learn that our loved ones died in the collapsed commercial building, that is not the time to ask how it could have happened. If you have read this far, then you already know how it happened. What you do not know is why, and Barbadians have a right to know, right now! why they are being led to an inevitable destruction.

The Government of Barbados is fully aware of the estimated losses. The United Nations assessed Barbados’ infrastructure in its Global Assessment Report (2013) and placed Barbados in its worst possible damage assessment category for earthquakes and hurricanes, with no upper limit on the amount of damage predicted. Recent seismic studies of Barbados (Salazar et al, 2013) have shown that Barbados is significantly more at risk to major earthquakes than predicted by the UN.

Based on the latest earthquake design parameters (Bozzoni et al, 2011), it can be reasonably assumed that all buildings with reinforced concrete floors in Barbados, that were built before 2011 and not updated to the current design standards, are expected to collapse during a major earthquake, killing most of the people inside. This includes schools, houses and commercial buildings. Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes normally strike without warning.

To reduce the risk of fatalities, Walbrent College has prepared a Home Strengthening Guide to economically strengthen sub-standard houses against earthquakes and hurricanes [Home Strengthening Guide].  It is freely available on the Internet.

Best regards,

Grenville

References

Francesca Bozzoni, Mirko Corigliano, Carlo G. Lai, Walter Salazar, Laura Scandella, Elisa Zuccolo, Joan Latchman, Lloyd Lynch, and Richard Robertson, 2011.  Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Assessment at the Eastern Caribbean Islands.  Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Vol. 101, No. 5, pp. 2499 – 2521, October 2011.

Walter Salazar, Lyndon Brown, and Garth Mannette.  Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Assessment for Bridgetown-Barbados, Employing Subduction Interface Characteristic Earthquakes.  Journal of Civil Engineering and Architecture.  Volume 7, No. 11 (Serial No. 72), pp. 1405-1422, November 2013.

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Public Notice

Dear Readers:

Due to the charging of individuals for breaching the Computer Misuse Act (section 14) and the Defamation Act, I must reduce the risk of inconvenience by reviewing all future comments for compliance.  You can help by not speaking disparagingly about people.  Please note that all favourable and unfavourable comments will continue to be posted, but any defamatory information will be redacted.

Best regards,

Grenville

In Defence of God

That God exists should be obvious to any design engineer.  Two of a multitude of examples should suffice.

Our best mechanical designs produce products that require constant maintenance.  For example, our best valves, even when used exactly as designed, still leak over time, and leak more frequently with use.  Yet, once we do not misuse our bodies, our lips do not leak water when full, and we do not leak urine or stool.  This is similar for every animal.  The ‘valves’ in every species of every animal were designed and made perfectly from the very beginning.

When design engineers, with significant research and development funds, design a car, cell phone, or any other manufactured product, then it is normally hailed as the most elegant design imaginable.  Yet, within approximately 5 years, it appears clumsy and crude when compared with the new current model.  We can be sure that today’s model will appear similarly crude 5 years hence.  Why is that?  Because their designs were not perfect, and we can normally detect an improved design.

We never seem to tire of the perfect designs of plants and animals as we do the imperfect designs of manufactured things.  Neither have we been able to improve natural designs.  We have tried to emphasize specific traits by grafting plants and selectively breeding animals.  However, these practices have not improved the pure-bred species.

Why don’t we get bored with nature?  Why do we continue to be amazed at each new discovery of natural things.  Because we appreciate perfection, and they were created perfect from the very beginning.  Actually, there is absolutely no evidence of any imperfect natural design anywhere on earth.  Put another way, there is no evidence of an imperfect natural design that evolved into a perfect or improved one.  All designs were made perfect from the beginning.  The only imperfect designs in the archaeological record  are man-made.  That is amazing!

God is perfect, and everything that He created was perfect, including us.  We had, and still have the perfect capability to choose to see His handiwork and acknowledge Him, or continue to believe the myth that life evolved across species – with no supporting evidence except the faith of blind ideologues who avoid any discussion on the issue.

A Probable Cause of Asthma

Dear Readers:

It has not been proven what causes asthma in our children, and researchers have not proven the reasons why there has been a dramatic increase in asthma cases worldwide.  So researchers who can find a correlation with other factors often offer their speculative opinions.

In Barbados, incidents of asthma have increased significantly since the 1970’s.  Health researchers have blamed the sub-Saharan African dust and allergens, environmental researchers have blamed pollution, and climate researchers have blamed the climate.

It is very easy and convenient to find a correlation with factors that only God can change.  It allows reputable researchers to go unchallenged and offers no hope to those who are directly affected – mainly the children and their parents.  Since parents are essentially powerless to change the sub-Saharan dust, allergens and the climate, they must resort to treating the symptoms with drugs.

Treating symptoms is not a permanent solution, but it can be an unnecessary lifetime expense.  Therefore, let us turn our attention to this issue in order to bring relief to the sufferers, and to prevent further incidents.

Before we continue, let me note that preparing this article revealed a glaring weakness of peer reviewed documents.  Generally, the reviewer only know as much, or perhaps a little more, of the narrow discipline of their peer, the author.  However, most causal investigations are not confined to only one discipline.  Therefore, single-discipline reviewed research will always be incomplete and substandard.  This should not reflect negatively on the competence of the researcher or the reviewer, but rather, on the effectiveness or the system in which they operate.  I can confidently state that the conclusions of most (if not all) single discipline reviewed causal studies on multi-disciplinary issues that I have read, are as useful as a shoe on a fish.

When trying to solve these types of problems, the most logical place to start is to understand the following.

  • The trend in the number of cases over many years.
  • The variability in cases during any one year
  • The relevant dramatic environmental changes when the symptoms started
  • The relevant environmental changes that increased as the number of cases increased

What environmental factors changed dramatically in the 1970’s across Barbados?  Well, not the climate, not the allergens, and not the sub-Saharan dust.  In Barbados, in was mainly an increase in the construction of concrete-block masonry houses and the purchase of automobiles.

Before, the floors of houses in Barbados were not in direct contact with the ground.  Ground floors in chattel houses and stone masonry houses were normally suspended above the ground as shown below.

House with suspeded floor

Builders constructing concrete-block masonry houses started placing the concrete slab directly on soil as shown below.

Floor on fill

A child sleeping in a room where the floor is in direct contact with the damp soil is not a safe environment.  In recognition of this, national building standards worldwide, including the Caribbean, specified that a Damp Proof Membrane or Vapour Barrier (eg. plastic sheets) be used to prevent moisture from rising through the floor and walls.

Tragically, builders and potential homeowners in Barbados were not made aware of Barbados’ national building standards.  Very few, if any (certainly none that I was aware of before Walbrent College was founded 5 years ago) had a copy of the Barbados National Building Code.  Therefore, either the Damp Proof Membrane was not installed, or it was not installed properly.  In the photo below, the black plastic Damp Proof Membrane is not lapped properly and it is not taped at the laps, allowing moisture to rise.

DPM

In the photo below, the Damp Proof Membrane or Vapour Barrier does not extend over the blocks.  Therefore, moisture can rise up the walls.

DPM not over walls

Therefore, all children in single storey concrete-block masonry houses, and all children sleeping in bedrooms that were located on the ground floor of a two-storey house, were in an unhealthy environment.  If they slept in an unventilated room with the room’s door(s) and window(s) closed, then the risk of harm increased significantly.

 Supporting A Plausible Solution

At this point, the significant increase in the number of houses with the floor in contact with the ground is plausible.  Now, let us see if the trends of asthma cases support our proposition.

Since there is increased rainfall in the rainy season of May to October, the ground floor and walls of houses would normally be damper than during the drier season.  The statistics show that there is an almost doubling of asthma cases in the wetter months of May to October.

Further, the number of asthma cases are always higher in the lower catchment area that drains into the Constitution river, where the water table and damp soil is closer to the surface, than in any other part of Barbados.

While this does not prove causation, it certainly makes ‘concrete slab on ground’ construction method a strong contender.  The proof can come by interviewing the sufferers to see whether they resided in such masonry houses.  It should be noted that poorly installed vapour barriers is reportedly a common problem worldwide.  Therefore, it can explain the general global increase in asthma cases.

Investigating the Increase in Automobiles

For completeness, we should investigate the increase in cars, and thus car exhaust emissions, as a possible cause.  If cars were the reason for the increase in asthma cases, then we would expect to see significantly lower cases in the windward eastern side of the island.  However, generally, there are a higher number of cases per 1,000 people in the better ventilated windward side of the island than on the western side, excluding the Constitution’ river’s drainage catchment area.

Help for All Parents

So what can parents do?  My suggestions follow, which would improve the quality of the interior house environment, even if another reason is later proved to cause asthma.

All new houses should have a properly installed Damp Proofing Membranes (continuous plastic sheet, lapped and taped) under the ground floor slab and walls, to prevent the damp from rising into the house.

All existing houses should have the external walls plastered and waterproofed.  If you are renting, then ask the tenant to do this.  The photo below shows a typical single-storey plastered masonry house.  Note the rising damp areas at the base of the wall.

Plastered house

What you cannot see is that the builder did not plaster all the way to the footings.  Please be advised that this is typical.  Therefore, the walls below the ground are normally damp, and the damp rises into the house – especially if the Damp Proofing Membrane does not extend over the blocks.  Note that the right side of this damp area is drier, only because the soil has been removed.

Unplastered foundation wall

The photo below shows a bituminous waterproofing agent applied to the plastered wall.

Waterproofed wall

I wish you well.

Best regards,

Grenville

Note: All photos are copyrighted by the author.

Time to Wake Up!

The Government has indicated that a significant amount of the planned $2.5B new debt is to be used to build new infrastructure.  Before spending any of this money on new infrastructure, let me suggest that the Government meaningfully regulate the construction industry.

Having trained over 500 construction personnel around the Caribbean, I can confirm that much of our infrastructure is indeed substandard.  I have spent the past 15 years providing explicit evidence supporting the accurateness of this claim, and while some countries have heeded and improved, Barbados has gone backwards.

The United Nations recently assessed Barbados’ infrastructure and concluded in its Global Assessment Report (2013) that Barbados is expected to suffer probable maximum losses of over 80% of its gross fixed capital formation (buildings, equipment and infrastructure) if we are impacted by a moderate earthquake, or hurricane.  This is the UN’s worst possible assessment category.  For comparison, the UN predicts that neighbouring St Lucia is only expected to suffer probable maximum losses of 10% to 20%.  When will we wake up and realise that we are doing something terribly wrong?

If the Government is determined to put money into new construction, then why not also strengthen what already exists?  The cost to strengthen a house is in the order of 3% of the construction cost of the house.  So we either spend around 3% now, or at least 80% later.  We either go through a major earthquake or hurricane with minimal adverse impact, or we experience the misery of a national catastrophe.  The UN has determined that we are currently on the latter path, but if we are serious, we can change in a few months.

Strengthening properties requires both disposable income and knowledge of how to strengthen.  To address the disposable income issue, the Government can consider giving people a choice of either paying the new municipal solid waste tax, or using that money to strengthen their properties.

To address the knowledge deficit, Walbrent College has developed a Home Strengthening Guide that provides information to economically strengthen a house against earthquakes and hurricanes.  The Guide can be printed and given to a few contractors to complete for pricing.  It is freely available on Walbrent.com (President’s Blog section).

It appears that the dire warnings about the dramatic decline in construction standards in Barbados over the past 15 years was not convincing.  Therefore, let me present the likely scenario in a more dramatic way.

80% of our schools are expected to collapse on 80% of our students and teachers.

80% of our public buildings are expected to collapse on 80% of our politicians and public servants.

80% of our hotels are expected to collapse on 80% of our visitors and hotel employees.

80% of our commercial buildings are expected to collapse on 80% of private sector employers and their employees.

80% of our churches are expected to collapse on 80% of congregants and pastors.

80% of our houses are expected to collapse on 80% of Barbadian families.

Are we awake yet?  Some may consider this to be alarmist.  They should be aware that earthquakes give no warning, and an estimated 316,000 Haitians died unnecessarily under substandard buildings.  This is a necessary alarm.  Wake up!!!

Grenville Phillips II is a chartered structural engineer and President of Walbrent College.

Reference

UN Global Assessment Report (2013), pg 110, Figure 7.4
Can be downloaded free from:
http://www.preventionweb.net/english/hyogo/gar/2013/en/home/index.html

Distorting the Construction Market Place

It is generally agreed that many Caribbean economies are in crisis.  Economists normally view activity in the construction industry as a reliable indicator of the state of the economy.  However, the market place in which the construction industry operates is distorted to the point where it may not be an indicator that economists can confidently base their assessments.  There are two principal reasons for this distortion and they will be described in two articles, this being the first.

The construction industry is special.  It is a diverse sector that allows persons to enter at any skilled or unskilled level and progress as far as they are willing to go.  Conscientious unskilled labourers can become skilled artisans and technicians.  Artisans can become foremen, site supervisors, and contactors.  Technicians can become surveyors, architects, and engineers.  I have seen this progression happen with others and it is wonderful.

I started at the unskilled labourer level, wielding a cutlass to cut sight lines through dense vegetation, and holding the measuring tape and surveyor’s staff for the land surveyor when required.  The work was exhausting, the sun was merciless, and the weeks were long, but I was enthusiastically grateful for the opportunity.  I then took the technician route and worked as a draughtsman, then progressed to become an engineer-in-training, consulting engineer, director/employer, and now president of Walbrent College.  The construction industry is very special indeed.

The construction industry operates in a competitive market place of consultants, contractors, and equipment and material suppliers.  Each player has the opportunity to improve the quality of their work with each new project.  Government has one critically important role in the competitive construction industry, and that is to regulate a fair market place.  This includes ensuring that contracts are fairly awarded – much like how a referee regulates a fair competitive game of football or basketball and awards the game to the winning team. 

When the market place is fairy regulated, small players can become better as they compete with bigger players in the local market.  Big players have the capacity to compete regionally and internationally, but they must qualify by wining contracts.

The market place becomes distorted when the Government no longer regulates a fair market place, but instead selects favoured consultants and contractors, and shields them from competition by awarding them contracts.  This is equivalent to a referee awarding a game to their favoured team without even allowing the ball on the field of play.

During economic recessions, smart governments tend to spend money on construction projects for two principal reasons.  First, construction projects have significant multiplier effects (many people benefit from each project).  Second, local players can remain competitive and qualify for regional projects as soon as the regional economy improves.  Therefore, the most efficient use of these funds is to clearly define the work to be done, and then invite companies to fairly tender or bid for the work.  Simply awarding consultancy and construction contracts without fair competition not only distorts the market, but significantly harms the national economy.  Let me explain.

Simply awarding a contract eliminates the incentive to provide a competitive cost, and the accountability to do quality work.  Preliminary audits of recently uncontested projects suggests significant functional over design resulting in unnecessary costs in the order of 40%, and/or significant safety under-design to the point where the buildings are expected to collapse in an earthquake.

We had previously estimated approximately 75% of building losses during a major earthquake in Eastern Caribbean countries, mostly due to substandard designs that resulted from decades of poor competition practises.  In its latest assessment report (GAR 2013), the United Nations has determined that Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago are expected to suffer over 80% GDP losses from a moderate earthquake.  Yet, despite the evidence of wasted money, substandard designs, and independently projected catastrophic losses, these market distorting practises continue.

The real damage to the national economies of some of these countries is expected to be realised in 2014, which represents 5 years of the practise of awarding practically all contracts in certain categories to the government’s favoured consultants and contractors.  This practise of consistently picking undeserved ‘winners’, automatically disqualifies the most competent companies from competing in the regional and international arena.

The questions that many Caribbean governments need to consider are:  Why are you artificially propping up your least capable companies, and purposefully disqualifying your most competent companies?  If you think your favoured consultants and contractors are competent, then why shield them from competing with others in the market place?  Do you honestly expect these artificial ‘winners’ to successfully compete regionally and internally when you have harmed their development by protecting them from being tested locally for so long?