Japan Earthquake: Engineering that saved lives
The earthquake that hit Japan one week ago today, which had a reported magnitude of 8.9, ranks as the 7th largest earthquake ever recorded, and the death toll continues to rise from the trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power issues. The death toll could have been even worse, however, without the strict Japanese Building Codes which doubtless saved thousands of lives.
According to the New York Times, such features as extra steel bracing, giant rubber pads and embedded hydraulic shock absorbers in high buildings make modern Japanese buildings among the sturdiest in the world during a major earthquake. Japan has such strict building codes because it is located in the “Ring of Fire,” where over 90% of the world’s total earthquakes occur.
John Wilson of Swinburne University (Melbourne) Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure says Japan’s “stringent” building regulations make the country well-prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis. “[Building codes] were tightened up a lot in the 1980s – most of the buildings built over the last 30 years in Japan will be subject to very tight seismic regulations,” he said. “They are designed for quite a high lateral force, to allow for the forces that get generated from such earthquakes… but also in many buildings they add additional features such as additional damping in the buildings to absorb some of the energy.”
During the earthquake, despite being hundreds of miles from the epicenter, Tokyo’s tall buildings literally swayed like trees as the quake shook the ground. According to structural engineer Bill Faschan: ”The basic idea, particularly (for) a tall building, is it’s supposed to act like a tree. A tree in the wind, it sways back and forth. And in a seismic event, it’s very similar. Obviously, the ground (is) shaking as opposed to the building being moved back and forth by the wind, but (it’s) the same idea. It’s supposed to move. It’s supposed to give.”
Is the U.S. ready for a big earthquake?
Not according to some experts. Even in the more earthquake-prone areas such as California, they say, the U.S. is far behind Japan in the building technology. As Donald R. Prothero with the L.A. Times pointed out:
Although California building codes are among the most stringent in the United States (thanks to what the 1933 Long Beach quake, which destroyed nearly all of our unreinforced masonry buildings), they don’t begin to match the standards demanded in Japan. Just consider the high overpasses where the 5 and 14 Freeways meet — which fell in the 1971 Sylmar quake; their replacements fell in the 1994 Northridge quake — and you begin to realize just how vulnerable our infrastructure is. And those quakes were only 6.6 and 6.7 in magnitude.
What comes next for the Building Codes?
Will U.S. jurisdictions create more stringent Building Codes after seeing the Japanese earthquake’s damage? Although California does take the likelihood of earthquakes into account its Code, will it now tighten them further?
Drop me a line in the comments to discuss this or any other Construction law topic. And don’t forget to sign up for email delivery of blog posts directly to your mailbox.
Friday Extra: Check out this Blog Post for a simple to understand explanation of the science behind Japan’s earthquake.
Architects and engineers (and the owners/contractors with whom they contract) often wonder whether limiting liability language is enforceable. The answer, as in much of construction law, is very much dependent on what state’s court will be interpreting the contract. Some states allow such limiting language, and others do not. Josh Glazov’s Construction Law Today blog recently tackled the enforceability of such provisions in the context of a recent Illinois case, in which the Illinois court found such limitations perfectly acceptable, so long as they (1) are not “unconscionable” and (2) do not violate public policy.
North Carolina takes a very similar approach to such limitations of liability. Here, so long as the limitation of liability is not also an agreement to be liable for the other party’s negligence (which is barred as against public policy), such a limitation of liability is enforceable. A case discussing this issue from the engineering perspective is Blaylock Grading Co., LLP v. Smith et al, 189 N.C. App. 508, 658 S.E.2d 680 (2008). In that case, a surveying engineer limited his liability, via contract, to $50,000. The Court, citing an earlier state Supreme Court decision, ruled that the limitation was valid and enforceable:
People should be entitled to contract on their own terms without the indulgence of paternalism by courts in the alleviation of one side or another from the effects of a bad bargain. Also, they should be permitted to enter into contracts that actually may be unreasonable or which may lead to hardship on one side. It is only where it turns out that one side or the other is to be penalized by the enforcement of the terms of a contract so unconscionable that no decent, fairminded person would view the ensuing result without being possessed of a profound sense of injustice, that equity will deny the use of its good offices in the enforcement of such unconscionability. Id. at 511, 658 S.E.2d at 682.
Is this rule absolute? Clearly not, as the above quote indicates. Unconscionable limitations will not be enforced. Moreover, a third party, not subject to the contractual terms, is free to sue in negligence. But as between the contracting parties, such a limitation on damages can be a powerful tool to minimize exposure to risk.
Questions about limitations on liability? Comment below or drop me a line. And be sure to sign up for email delivery of blog posts directly to your inbox.
Photo: “Proceed at own risk” by Dave Nicoll via Flickr/Creative Commons license
Two commercial “green” roofs have been in the news this week. One involves a collapse; one involves energy savings.
Green Roof Collapse
The green roof at the Aquascape, Inc. warehouse in Illinois collapsed over the weekend, likely due to melting snow and ice. A 50 foot wide section of th 256,000-square-foot roof (allegedly the largest sloping green roof in North America) collapsed on Sunday, although no injuries were reported. A team of structural engineers from the building’s design firm is investigating the cause. As noted in a company press release, St. Charles, IL, where Aquascape Inc’s head office is located, had been recently hit with a major snow storm where 20.6 inches of snow had fallen in less than 24 hours, followed by above freezing temperatures causing a quick thaw. An ice damn at the base is suspected to have backed the water up over the parking structure causing its collapse.
Solar Roof goes “live”
While Aquascape’s engineers are investigating their roof collapse, there is some good green roof news closer to home. Raleigh-based marble company David Allen Company has recently “flipped the switch” on a photovoltaic solar energy facility that it claims is one of the largest rooftop photovoltaic systems in the Triangle, with 700 solar modules covering 23,000 square feet of the rooftop of the company’s warehouse. The company hopes to offset at least 35% of its current electrical costs, and sell energy to Progress Energy as well, according to Triangle Business Journal. Check out these photos of the installation by Peak Solar Investors, LLC.
Legal Implications related to Roof Design?
Both of these roofs bring up legal issues. Was the Aquascape green roof designed appropriately to accommodate loads in a winter climate?
With so many roof collapses this winter (including, of course, the Minneapolis metrodome) , is there, or should there be, a duty on the building’s owner/maintenance crew to proactively remove snow accumulations?
For new solar roofs, such as at David Allen Company, who assumes the risk if the expected cost savings are not realized?
Based on the sheer number of roof collapses this winter, and the number of green projects growing steadily, there is sure to be some litigation addressing at least some of these issues in the near future. Stay tuned.
Imagine being told that you will not be paid for a house you constructed pursuant to a contract with homeowners. And imagine that the reason for not getting paid had to do with whether or not you signed a contract “on behalf of” your partnership or whether you simply signed your individual name. This is the exact case that Ron Medlin, partner in Ron Medlin Construction, is facing thanks to a recent North Carolina Supreme Court case, Ron Medlin Construction v. Raymond A. Harris, __ N.C. __, (December 20, 2010).
Ron Medlin entered into a contract with the Harris’ for the construction of a home not to exceed $604,800. Of note, Medlin did not have a licensed general contractor’s license, as is required. However, Ron Medlin Construction, a partnership, was appropriately licensed as a general contractor, and the partnership performed the work relating to the construction of the residence.
When litigation arose over cost overruns, the Harris’ claimed they did not need to honor the contract because it was with an unlicensed contractor. Under North Carolina law, any person who performs work in excess of $30,000 needs to be appropriately licensed or he cannot recover for his work in the Courts. (See Brady v. Fulghum, 309 N.C. 580, 586, 308 S.E.2d 327, 331 (1983)). The partnership argued that it did not have a contract with the Harris’, yet it performed work in constructing the residence and, therefore, was entitled to recover a just amount under a theory called quantum meruit. The Court held that the partnership ratified Ron Medlin’s individual acts, and as such the partnership was bound by the (unenforceable) contract and could not recover.
The Court held, as a matter of law, that:
a contract for the construction of a home or building executed by a partner in a licensed partnership engaged in the construction business is the contract of the partnership unless the remaining partners can show that the partner was not authorized to act on behalf of the partnership and, if not so authorized, the partnership did not ratify the contract.
Moral of the story? It is important that you follow the rules in signing and performing under construction contracts, as well as in maintaining your proper corporate formalities. It might even be worth having your attorney review your construction contract before you sign it. Unless, that is, you don’t mind that chance that you may end up performing some of your work for free.
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Photo: “361/365 days -it feels good to stop” by badjonni via Flickr/Creative Commons license.