Thursday, June 09, 2005

Unsafe building practices in El Salvador

In January, a Wall Street Journal article described how US funds designated for reconstruction of buildings following the 2001 earthquakes, often financed shoddy construction:

Four years ago, a pair of powerful earthquakes crumbled whole villages of small brick homes in the lush river valley of La Cruzadilla de San Juan, El Salvador. Millions of dollars in U.S.-government aid poured in to handle the initial crisis, followed by many more millions to help rebuild.

The result is more than 25,000 homes, 53 schools and dozens of clinics and other facilities. But in some cases, the design and construction of the buildings are flawed, making them potentially dangerous in the event of another disaster in this earthquake-prone region.

In some homes, the ceilings are improperly attached to the walls. In others, concrete blocks are too small and the reinforcing metal rods used to add strength are too thin.

A new U.S.-funded grammar school in the town of Jiquilisco has dead-end corridors that are 120 feet from the only exit, 100 feet farther than building codes in the U.S. allow. A classroom at the end of the corridor has exposed wiring that leads to an outlet.

In many new homes, a narrow column of concrete blocks holds up part of a roof. "I could run into this like a football player and I'd crack it," says David Rivard, president of Steel Reinforcing Inc., a Burlingame, Calif., contracting business.

The point of the article was that little had apparently been done to make sure that reconstruction aid was not used to build homes which would not collapse again or to build buildings which did not endanger their occupants.

A follow-up article appears in the April 2005 Building Safety Journal. It reports on some of the findings concerning building code issues in El Salvador:
We discovered that building and fire safety officials in El
Salvador do the best jobs they can given their very limited
resources. Permits are required, for example, but virtually no
plan reviews or inspections are performed due to the expense.
Similarly, there is a code manual that references many U.S.
materials standards related to structural integrity and design
students are taught those standards, but compliance is never
independently verified. Engineers supervise larger construction
jobs, sometimes staying on the jobsite the entire duration of a
project, but no fire and life safety standards are actively enforced.

The differences between U.S. and Salvadorian practices are
primarily cultural in nature. Being just a little more than a decade
past a civil war, its citizens are more conscious of security than
building safety. Doors are locked to prevent armed assault, with
little thought given to the plight of occupants should escape
become necessary. This mind set lies at the root of many of the
code violations that CASA Corps team members observed during
the course of our inspections.
Some of the safety risks observed in buildings in El Salvador included:
  • doors chained and padlocked
  • main exit having gate with a surface bolt
  • a single exit for 800 students in a school
  • a single exit for a 1,000-occupant nightclub
    (and it was padlocked)
  • a single exit for a 1,000-occupant assembly room
    (National Legislative Assembly hall)
  • guardrails attached with 3-inch bolts, some failing
  • a single exit from a second story

Casa Corps, the group of engineers, safety inspectors and building code experts, which toured El Salvador, hopes to assist the country by taking steps to encourage the translation of modern building codes into Spanish, adapting codes to fit the Salvadoran cultural reality, and assisting in the development of building inspection programs.

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