Every now and then the topic of earthquakes comes up in Vancouver. The most recent event was the 4.8 quake on 29 December, 2015. I have worked on the topic of earthquakes for federal authorities for some years and continue to follow the issue.
Vancouver’s emergency planning documents put the risk of an earthquake in perspective. They note that 60% of Vancouver’s building stock was built before seismic building codes. There’s been no damaging earthquake in modern times and so all these buildings are vulnerable.
Interestingly, my father was partly responsible for construction of one of the first earthquake resistant buildings in Vancouver — 200 Granville Square. I remember first hearing about earthquakes when I lived in Burnaby in the late 1960s. I was a young teenager and my father was General Manager of “Project 200”, an early attempt to revamp the waterfront. Nobody played nicely, not even consortium members Woodwords, Canadian Pacific, Grosvenor Lang, or Sears. City planners didn’t react quickly or lead the discussion, and neither the federal nor provincial government seemed interested. Project 200 is another story—a missed opportunity. But the earthquake resistant building is highly relevant today.
There was a lot made about Granville Square. It was among the first density transfers of its kind in North America with my father having to help obtain a mortgage for the air above the CP railway tracks. Usually mortgages are for land and buildings, but this building was built on stilts above the CP railway tracks.
While this deal was being done and the building designed, my father would regale us at the dinner table about his day at work. One day it was the promotional copy that told of the “giant pedestrian mall” that would abut Granville Square. “And where will you find the giant pedestrians?” I asked. Another night my father toyed with some promotional copy that would tell the story of Granville Square being the only building left standing after a major earthquake. He thought it would be fun to tell potential tenants that they’d be able to work in peace, quiet, and safety, if only they could climb over the rubble of all the other buildings in the city.
In those days, earthquake-proofing a building meant constructing sockets, lined with neoprene on which concrete pillars stood, which in turn held up the building. My father said he had no idea what neoprene ended up like after he’d put a building weighing many hundreds of tonnes on top of it. He certainly had no idea how to perform maintenance on the assembly after construction.
Now, Vancouver’s plan goes well beyond building materials. Memoranda of Understanding with other Canadian cities are now part of the plan in order to ensure rapid deployment of resources after a disaster. Similarly, the Vancouverites are recommended to reduce dependency on electricity and natural gas grids and develop back-up power sources. Even if buildings are still standing after an earthquake, supply lines and energy infrastructure might be severely damaged or destroyed.
Even the best-designed earthquake-proof building might need to be evacuated in case of fire or other emergency. This is why Vancouver’s plan requires buildings’ structural drawings and fire plans to be copied and stored centrally in order to speed-up assessment of complex and high occupancy dwellings.
There’s more to be done in Vancouver and neighbouring cities. Some have designated disaster routes (DDRs) and others don’t. Some link to useful provincial government preparedness documents, and others don’t. We’ve never sure how many individual citizens are well prepared and would rather not find out after an earthquake.