Exhibit lays out principles for disaster-resistant structures

'Designing for Disaster' details buildings meant to withstand quakes, hurricanes and floods

Designing for Disaster exhibit at National Building Museum

DESIGNING FOR DISASTER  The National Building Museum examines methods used by engineers to make buildings resistant to wildfires and other natural hazards.

Allan Sprecher, courtesy of the National Building Museum

Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires — no part of the United States is immune to natural disasters. While no one can prevent these hazards, people can prepare for them. “Designing for Disaster” at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., showcases how scientists, engineers and government officials work together to guard the country’s infrastructure against Mother Nature’s fury. 

On entering the exhibit, visitors are immediately confronted with tangible reminders of the destruction that natural disasters can inflict: The door of a home drowned by Hurricane Katrina stands near the exhibit’s entrance; a few pieces of a Japanese dock lie on a table, having washed ashore in Washington state after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake; a battered tornado siren from Kansas hangs from the wall.

The rest of the exhibit focuses on how engineers design and build disaster-resistant structures. The University of California, Berkeley, for instance, recently retrofitted its nearly 90-year-old football stadium, which straddles the Hayward Fault. Parts of the stadium rest on large blocks that can slide independently of each other and move up and down and side to side as needed during an earthquake. When a museum visitor clicks a button, life-size stairs demonstrate how the system would work in a real earthquake.

Another highlight is a mini replica of Florida International University’s Wall of Wind, an array of 12 giant fans that can simulate the strongest hurricanes. It has helped engineers and manufacturers develop windproof materials and structures. With the exhibit’s replica, visitors can test how well roof designs stand up to hurricanes. Activating the fans is enjoyable, but some visitors may yearn for more explanation of why some designs do better than others. The Wall of Wind is one of several hands-on components in the exhibit. But overall, “Designing for Disaster” is quite text-heavy and clearly aimed at adults, who may at times grow tired of all the reading.

Still, the exhibit’s message is important. As the exhibit shows, it often takes a monumental disaster for officials to enact stringent building codes and laws. But with such advanced engineering know-how already available, why wait for disaster to strike?

Erin Wayman is the managing editor for print and longform content at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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