Southeast Asia: Traditional construction earthquake-proof?

Research project investigates causes for resilience

Earthquake-proof houses © University of Wuppertal
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In March 2005, the Sumatra offshore island of Nias was shaken by heavy earthquakes. 1, 000 people died and most of the buildings were destroyed, with the exception of traditional-style houses. But why? Researchers at the Technical University (TU) Vienna are now looking into the question of what makes traditional construction so stable and secure.

The tsunami disaster of 26 December 2004 has brought the Indonesian island of Sumatra to the attention of the world public. Less respected worldwide, but just as violently three months later - in March 2005 - Sumatra's offshore island of Nias was shaken by heavy earthquakes. Over 1000 people died in the rubble of the almost completely destroyed building fabric. It is astonishing that only the traditional architecture of Sumatra and Nias' has proven to be earthquake-proof. Quite in contrast to the newly built buildings.

Research and secure ancient knowledge

The location of the settlements on the hilltops, the material used wood and the special construction are the result of a centuries-long development process. The houses offer excellent protection against the humid and hot climate and at the same time are cleverly constructed in view of the recurrent earthquakes. The earthquakes of recent months in Nias have provided clear evidence of the stability of the structures. But despite these advantages, the knowledge of traditional methods is dwindling.

The TU researchers now want to counteract this with the current research project "Investigation of traditional constructions and methods for earthquake-proof construction in Nias". The aim of the research project is the analysis of traditional building techniques and their potential uses for future construction projects.

To this end, construction photographs from recent years are compared with new photographs after the earthquakes. The changes in the houses and village structures are documented, the damage is quantified qualitatively and as far as possible and the causes of the failure are determined. The result of the investigation is a detailed description of the functioning of traditional construction techniques and an outlook on application possibilities in the planning and construction of new buildings in Nias. display

Documentary and student designs as a result

In the winter semester 2005/2006 the results of the construction surveys will be used as a basis for a design at the Department of Building Construction, Design, Installation and Design. In the course of this course new insights for the implementation of traditional techniques and methods in future planning are to be gained.

The scientific results are also summarized in a form comprehensible to the local population in a cinematic documentation. With this medium, the population in Nias should be given the opportunity to get to know the advantages of their existing building techniques from a new perspective. In this way, an incentive is created to revive one's own traditions, to preserve existing houses and to apply the traditional techniques to new buildings. In cooperation with local authorities, construction projects and renovation measures can also be financially supported.

(TU Vienna, 27.07.2005 - NPO)