An architect’s thoughts on the earthquake, acts of God, and voting wisely

  • April 23, 2019

1.) “Nakakatakot talaga yung mga matataas na building! Dapat i-ban ang mga yan!” 
The reason why mid- to high-rises are favored in development is because well-planned, mixed-use, higher-density, walkable neighborhoods are a more sustainable and synergistic way to use land. We all want to live and work in our own spacious garden villas, but that kind of sprawl actually puts a significantly larger burden on environment. (Shout out to my urban planner colleagues who would like to weigh in on this)
There’s a disconnect between what we “imagine” sustainability looks like, and what it truly is.
With that said, we can concede that the Philippines isn’t exactly the leader of well-planned, mixed-use, higher-density, walkable neighborhoods, and many of our taller buildings aren’t stellar beacons of great construction.
Which leads us to the second comment:
2.) “We should design all our buildings to withstand Magnitude 9 or greater!”
That would be a wonderful guideline from a safety stand point, but there’s a reason why this isn’t happening.
My professor in structural design gave us a heuristic back in the day: if a 7.5 magnitude-resisting building would cost PHP1M to build, a 9.0 magnitude-resisting building would cost around four to five times more, and the enlarged structural members would eat up so much useable space that it wouldn’t be economically feasible. (Shout out to my structural engineer colleagues to shed light on this—I believe my prof’s heuristic was more of a demonstrative analogy)
Our structural members are also already big to begin with. A foreign architect I once worked with was astounded at the size of the columns of our project. “In my country, we can make do with structural sizes that are 30% smaller!” Of course, his country was not along the Pacific Ring of Fire, nor was it within a nursery for supertyphoons.
Does this mean that it is bad to structurally  over-design?
No. We SHOULD be “over-designing” always? Code and best practices regarding Factors of Safety, we should be overdesigning hospitals, schools, bridges and other critical public infrastructure.
We should be. Maybe on paper we are. But what happens when it’s time to bid and build, especially for government projects? Why do good intentions end up as dangerous infrastructure?
On the flip side, you are also fully free to overdesign the private house or building you want to put up so that it can withstand a 9.0 or greater—if you are willing to spend the 300-400% increase on structural cost, and forgo using this money in other avenues that are beneficial to your future.
“But what if the Big One happens?!”
And here lies the difficult call—designing for something that is highly probable vs designing for a catastrophic black swan. Our codes are informed by probabilities calculated from precedents—because we have scarce resources that we have to consider for both the short and long term use. Does your initial 400% structural cash-out make sense if the chances of the Big One happening in the next  three lifetimes are incredibly small?
But the question remains, “What If?” The reasoning above would come off as incredibly foolish, blasphemous, and negligent of human life if the Big One were to indeed happen.
If it were to happen, we would have to swallow a bitter pill, one that we can begin to swallow now: Metro Manila’s vulnerability to the Big One is not a simple result of people choosing not to overdesign their buildings. It is a product of over 50 years of shoddy building practices, government and voter deficiencies, and political tribalism reflected in three-year spruce ups instead of decades of cooperative urban planning across cities.
Some people will tend to find other reasons still, reasons that I deeply disagree with. Which leads us to the last comment:
3.) “This earthquake was a sign of of God’s will to ______ us because of  ______, and the reason why nagkakaganito ang mga building natin is because we don’t pray!” 
There’s a difference between focusing on gratitude for your family’s safety and looking to find a political scapegoat.
There’s also a difference between sincere loving prayer thru God for the welfare of our countrymen and maliciously invoking the wrath of a Divine Tribal Lord – one who is supposedly all-loving on some days but genocidal on other days.
Cosmic determinism is a theocrat’s frantic attempt to escape reality. It’s irresponsible, inhuman, and wrong. And as a mode of reasoning, it’s a slippery slope.
If you see the Catholic God as a Divine Tribal Lord, one with the Emotional Intelligence of a jealous two-year old, and one who seeks to punish infidels throughout history for not worshipping him properly (or for not supporting the politician he favors), you will have to grapple with the fact that secular nations that put a premium on Reason, Science and Humanism leap far ahead of theocratic Catholic nations in virtually all metrics of quality of life and morality (Pinker 2011, 2018). It’s a demonstrable two-way correlation that has been true all throughout history, and it remains true today.
You will also have to grapple with the fact that the more a nation stops fixating on a Divine Tribal Lord, the less likely they are to be plagued by the said Tribal Lord’s catastrophes. We need look no further than Japan to see why this is so. For a Nation that does not believe in Christ, they are certainly more Christ-like than we are, on average, especially in their handling of disasters. As for us, again on average, we seem to be more content in having the Pharisees as our role models.
Trying to invoke cosmic determinism can lead us towards opposite conclusions, and also – theologically speaking – a God of whimsical genocide cannot be a God of unconditional love.
The reason why “nagkakaganito ang mga building natin” is not because “we don’t pray”. We’re Pinoy. We’re the most prayerful bunch in the Pacific Ring of Fire. The reason why “nagkakaganito ang mga building natin” is because we don’t act. We’ve been praying for miracles instead of developing daily discipline since the Spanish Colonial times. And to be fair, the powers that be – both then and now – are happy to keep us in this state.
Here we are. Nandito na tayo. Our 2019 built environment is what we have to work with, to move forward from. While we pray, while we wish safety for our countrymen in the midst of this scare, we can finally do the things we have been putting off. We can prepare our emergency kit, discuss our evacuation plan with our loved ones, and secure the hazards in our homes.
And, as cliche as it might sound, we can vote wisely in the coming elections.]]>

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