Dana Buntrock, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and has written extensively on Japanese architecture and the Japanese construction industry, expressed concern about certain design practices in Japan at a panel discussion at her school on March 16. The panel included other Berkeley professors, from the fields of civil and environmental engineering and nuclear engineering. Buntrock provided us with her remarks and allowed us to publish some excerpts.
"Japan’s building codes are, in many ways, as good as they can get when it comes to seismic design, their failings simply the result of how little we know, a little over 100 years after seismicity emerged as a science. Many people are at this very moment safely sheltered in modern structures that withstood walls of water or numerous enormous earthquakes — although the areas hardest hit are poor, with fewer of the newest, strongest buildings."
Buntrock, however, stated that some of Japan's most acclaimed architects have succeeded by flouting certain "norms of professional practice seen elsewhere." For example, she said, "Japanese architects — and yes, Japanese mechanical engineers — have ignored energy demand and its implications for public safety. In fact, the fashion in the last few years has been to aestheticize building structure to the detriment of energy performance. I can cite recent architecture in Japan, work that has been internationally celebrated, that lacks any insulation at all. Such work has been extremely popular in the international press. Cavalier attitudes toward energy contributed to the voracious demand for oil and nuclear power in Japan."
Another area that concerns Buntrock is the growing height of buildings in Japan. She said, "The construction community [in Japan] has pressured politicians to increase permissible heights in urban areas, because tall buildings not only bring more revenue to developers, but promote an ambitious and expensive race to the sky that fuels the scrap-and-build destruction of Japan’s largest cities.
"In January of this year, Japan’s Ministry of Land announced its strong concerns regarding this trend, noting that tall buildings were particularly vulnerable to the kind of slow, wide swings [that would later be] seen in the March 11 earthquake. . . The ministry made clear that it was developing plans to require resurveying buildings over 20 stories, and that many would likely have to be structurally modified. These structural reviews, and the anticipated retrofits, will not be a modest undertaking; there are over 2,500 such structures in Japan today."