New Year’s Day Earthquake Sparks Interest in Japan’s Seismic Building Codes

January 11th, 2024 by Joshua Huff

Building resilience is at the forefront of the conversation surrounding Japan’s recent 7.5 magnitude New Year’s Day earthquake on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture. Reports indicate that the quake killed hundreds of people, with many left homeless.

The destruction could have been worse. Other earthquakes throughout the world have seen greater devastation. This includes the 7.8-magnitude Turkey earthquake in February 2023 that killed tens of thousands of people and the 2010 7.0-magnitude Haiti earthquake that killed around 200,000. This is partly because Japan has innovated construction practices to protect infrastructure. The New York Times in 2011 stated that the country has some of the strictest building codes of any country in the world. 

The minimal loss of life caught the attention of the seismology community. Seismologist Lucy Jones, founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, wrote on X (Twitter) that “because of strong, enforced building codes in Japan, the damage is much less than it could have been.”

That’s because Japan has innovated data capture systems and focused on resilient building design, such as designing shock absorbers and motion dampers, improving window sealants for better flexibility, and enhancing installation procedures for materials such as glass. The country also designed a more accurate earthquake measurement system called the Moment Magnitude Scale, which guides infrastructure standards and building codes.

Japan is no stranger to earthquakes. It is wedged among four major tectonic plates. From the Great Kantō earthquake in 1923, that nearly flattened Tokyo, leading to Japan’s first quake-resistant building code, to the magnitude-9.0 earthquake in 2011 that triggered tsunamis that killed thousands of people—Japan is familiar with natural disasters.

However, updated building codes have helped mitigate the damage caused by seismic activity. For instance, reports show that the 2011 quake did minimal damage to impact sites, swaying buildings and shattering glass. The tsunami waves were the main culprit for much of the damage.

The lack of extensive damage resulted from strict seismic standards in building codes that focus on strengthening new and old buildings, such as the Building Standard Act and the Housing Quality Assurance Act of 2000. Codes generally specify that buildings should not collapse during an earthquake despite the size of the tremors and the damage inflicted. According to The New York Times, Japan designs new buildings to sway with an earthquake’s movement rather than remain static and let the movement stress the structure.

Seismic resiliency in structures has concerned engineers and architects worldwide. These concerns led to the creation of the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure Tallwood project at the University of California San Diego.

The project features the world’s tallest full-scale earthquake simulator that tests a structure’s resiliency and other elements, including glass integrity and window seal resilience.

Lothar Erkens, an engineer at Winco Window Company, told [DWM]’s sister publication, USGlass magazine, that sealant failures are the main concern for the glass industry following an earthquake. Erkens participated in the Tallwood project this past year. He explained that glass will crack and break during an earthquake, but sealant failures will go unnoticed until it’s too late.

But earthquakes are just one form of potential disaster that residential buildings face and the costs for repairing and rebuilding increase each year.

“Over the last 20 years, there’s an upward trend and a higher share of spending that goes towards disaster restoration,” says Abbe Will, senior research associate and associate project director of the Remodeling Futures Program for Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Meanwhile, the number of storms causing $1 billion or more in damages has grown, Will says. As insurance companies shell out for repairs and adjust premiums, homeowners will begin to look at how they can add additional protection, she says.

“We fully expect that more homeowners will not only spend more in restorations after the fact, using insurance proceeds, but over maybe the next 5-10 years they will begin to think more about resiliency,” Will says. “Like what can I do in advance to make my home more resilient to that next storm.”

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