Why do earthquakes suck?

Peanuts_charactersMy first significant earthquake came while I was sitting on an under-construction deck in Berkeley. The deck, still unbraced, stood still while the house it was attached to swayed pretty vigorously. It was an interesting demonstration of Newton’s Law that a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted on by an outside force. That same earthquake that couldn’t twitch my deck was strong enough to move parts of California a few inches North and knock down stone walls.

Hotel La RoseStructural engineers have studied earthquakes and their effect on structures and can make just about any building designed today both safe and durable in an earthquake. Sadly, some of our most beautiful building materials are terrible choices for earthquake country. I did a quick walking tour around Railroad Square in Santa Rosa today and was admiring the many older buildings that featured stone and brick. The Hotel La Rose is a beautiful stone building of three stories that was built of locally quarried basalt in 1907, a year after the big quake in San Francisco that also knocked down much of Santa Rosa. Just around the corner from the hotel is the Jacobs building. Lots of tenants have occupied this building and Capri, one of our favorite Italian restaurants, was on the ground floor. We still miss Luigi.

Jacobs BuildingThe clinker brick facade of this Railroad Square landmark has a wonderfully authentic color and rustic feel and that isn’t achievable with stucco, wood, or any of the faux masonry products that get glued onto the exteriors of buildings today. So the answer to the question, “Why do earthquakes suck” has to be that they deny us some of the traditional architectural materials that have been around for millenia. It’s still possible to design with brick appearance as the JC parking lot attests, but that’s a public works job with a mega budget. For the average residential and commercial builder, real stone and real brick are expensive ornamentation devoid of any structural significance. Thanks a lot, earthquakes…