With the ongoing revelations of the scale of the disaster in Bam, Iran, it's easy to forget that the magnitude of the earthquake in Iran -- 6.6 on the Richter scale -- was quite close to that of an earthquake just a few days earlier, the 6.5 quake in Paso Robles, California. In Iran, the quake killed as many as 40,000 people, and destroyed thousands of buildings; in California, the quake killed 3, and while early 100 buildings were damaged enough to require safety inspections, only one collapsed. The reason for the difference is not surprising: buildings in California were built according to strong earthquake codes, while the homes and businesses destroyed by earthquake in Iran were largely made of unreinforced mud and stone. As tragic as this is, we've become somewhat accustomed to seeing devastating results from earthquakes in the developing world, figuring that the building materials for quake-resistant designs must be financially out of reach.
But MIT architecture professor Jan Wampler doesn't think that way. Since the late 1980s, Wampler has been running the International Workshop, a multi-disciplinary program for both undergrads and grad students. Students visit a developing country, studying its culture, architectural history, available technology and resources in order to design buildings appropriate and useful for the area. After 1999's disastrous 7.4 earthquake in Turkey, Wampler -- along with two former students, Barbara Brady and Rukiye Devres Unver -- began a program focusing on how local villages could be rebuilt to better withstand earthquakaes... and, along the way, better withstand economic and social pressures leading to their cultural destruction, as well.
Wampler reasoned that, by bringing a workshop to Turkey after the quake, he and his students could help rebuild the devastated countryside, designing and constructing much needed and more stable shelters. After consulting with Brady and Unver, he chose to focus on the region surrounding the city of Adapazari, which lies directly on the fault and 75 percent of whose buildings had been leveled. He also intended to devote the workshop to planning an entire village, or as he puts it, a “microvillage.” Wampler invented the term, he says, to capture the sense of a small, technical community—something more than just homes grouped together. According to his definition, a microvillage incorporates design that recognizes local architectural traditions while exploring the newest technologies; fosters a sense of community (something that gets lost amid the high-rises of a big city); and provides economic self-sustainability (if inhabitants can create microindustries within the village, they won’t feel pressed to migrate to the cities).
The workshop concentrated on designing buildings which were affordable, survivable, and still fit into the architectural heritage of the region. Moreover, the "microvillage" was built with a community center incorporating a library with Internet access, allowing the residents to bring in information and sell locally-crafted products online. The goal of the microvillage project is sustainability -- both in the sense of the community surviving what nature throws at it and the community having an ongoing reason for its existence.
As seen in Turkey, even regulations and knowledge won't stop greedy and corrupt people building cheap and fragile houses they can rent out to the Poor.
And if a "Big One" comes, ten thousands will die. Again and again.