above: Harriette with a girl from a Nepalese community where she worked.

Harriette Stone is a structural engineer currently studying for a doctorate at University College London. Throughout her career she has been interested in earthquake engineering, the branch of structural engineering that deals with structures in seismically active regions. Here she explains how engineers can help reduce the risk that communities face from these natural disasters.

Structural engineers can help to mitigate the impact of earthquakes in two ways: by designing new structures to resist the stresses and strains of ground shaking; and by assessing buildings which already exist in earthquake prone areas, and if needed, designing retrofitting schemes to strengthen them.

This kind of work is really important in helping to reduce the risks that communities around the world face. By ensuring houses, schools, hospitals and government buildings are as earthquake-prepared as possible, fewer buildings are at risk of collapse, meaning less destruction and lower casualty numbers. Keeping buildings standing also reduces the long term impact an earthquake has on the community; people still have somewhere to live, businesses and schools stay open, employment is maintained, and hospitals are better able to cope.

That’s why in recent years there has been a shift in the way the international community deals with earthquakes, the emphasis shifting from response to risk reduction. Preparing structures to survive natural disasters is a far more efficient way to spend money than dealing with the results of collapses. Of course we still need disaster response, because the environment that we live in is more powerful than the engineered environment that we have built – but the fact remains, the more prepared structures are for earthquakes, the more lives will be saved.

Mother Teresa once famously said that her work was just a drop in the ocean, but that the ocean would be less without that drop. That is how I feel about earthquake risk around the world. There are so many vulnerable people and places. With infinite money we would send thousands of engineers to go and assess all of these buildings, strengthen them if needed, and set up systems to ensure that new buildings are built in the proper way.

Obviously that’s not possible, but if we all do our ‘one drop’ then maybe we can make an impact. For example, for my Masters dissertation I assessed the earthquake capacity of a school building on an island in the West Indies. My calculations showed that it had some major failings and suggested ways to solve them. The local disaster risk agency now knows about and understands the problem and they have motivation to do something about it.  As a result, it could mean that the building doesn’t collapse in the next earthquake, keeping the school children and their teachers safe. That is one building, only one tiny drop, but it improves the situation. Hopefully I’ll be able to add other drops over the course of my career.

How would you describe structural engineering to a layman?

Structural engineering ensures the structures around you stand up. I am often asked what the difference between architects and structural engineers is - to which I reply: architects have the ideas, engineers make it a reality.
You can watch a UCL video about engineering featuring Harriette here.

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