Building Safer Homes Before The Next China Quake Last May, an earthquake devastated southwest China, toppling buildings. The culprit, says earthquake engineer Elizabeth Hausler, was precast concrete slabs. Hausler is now on a mission in Sichuan to help people build homes that can withstand future earthquakes.
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Building Safer Homes Before The Next China Quake

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Building Safer Homes Before The Next China Quake

Building Safer Homes Before The Next China Quake

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All this week, our co-host Melissa Block is reporting from Sichuan province in China. It's almost a year since the massive earthquake that struck southwestern China. People there are still working to rebuild their homes and their lives. Helping them do that is an American woman, an earthquake engineer from Illinois and Melissa has this story.

MELISSA BLOCK: Elizabeth Hausler is the founder of a young nonprofit group called Build Change. Her message is this: Earthquakes don't kill people, bad buildings do. And as we drive through villages outside the city of Mianzhu, she can see in an instant whether the new construction under way all around us is solid or shoddy.

Okay, here's one. (unintelligible) bricks and cement.

Dr. ELIZABETH HAUSLER (Founder, Build Change): Yes. That looks pretty good except those lintels over the doors are too short.

BLOCK: Elizabeth Hausler is 40 with a PhD in civil engineering. She's the daughter of a mason, and a skilled mason herself. She spent summers laying brick where she grew up, outside Chicago.

Dr. HAUSLER: It looks like their concrete quality is not so good. You can see that beam in the front. Looks like when they pulled the floor work off they pulled half the concrete off as well. So that doesn't look so good.

BLOCK: The villagers here are in a frenzy of rebuilding. Their new houses are rising from the rubble of the old ones and Hausler wants to make sure they're not repeating the mistakes of the past.

Dr. HAUSLER: So you're about to start on the masonry wall. So I want to really encourage you to make sure that the workers are soaking the bricks in water before they build the wall. That'll make the wall a lot stronger.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: We've come to the village of Xinle where 11 homes are being rebuilt at a frantic pace. Hausler moves around the work site in jeans and work boots, her long blond hair in a ponytail under a yellow Build Change hard hat.

(Soundbite of machinery)

BLOCK: Cement mixers churn out mortar. Workers are provided with wheelbarrows and shovels and planks. Dump trucks offload huge piles of orange brick.

Dr. HAUSLER: The bricks that we've seeing here in the field are generally pretty good but one of the best ways of testing brickā€¦

(Soundbite of bricks)

Dr. HAUSLER: Hear how it makes a kind of metallic clink? That's the kind of sound that we want to hear in a brick.

BLOCK: Village leaders invited Build Change to work here so a team is climbing around with tape measures and checklists to make sure the work is really done right.

Ms. KWON YEN(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: The Build Change construction team leader, a 24 year old spitfire named Kwon Yen delivers a scolding to the homeowners. She urges them to take more responsibility.

Ms. YEN: (Foreign Language Spoken)

BLOCK: There are only a few of us, she says. We need your cooperation. If we all work together, I can guarantee that your houses will be safe.

Mr. LEE WON FU(ph): (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: One of the villagers, Lee Won Fu(ph) approaches us with a big smile. He says he's a farmer, one hundred percent. Mr. Lee, would you show us your home?

Mr. LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: This is your house right here.

Mr. LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: You've got several walls that are already going up.

Mr. LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: For the last year, Lee and his family have been living in a makeshift hut with no walls. He cobbled it together out of the debris from his old home which completely collapsed in the earthquake.

Mr. LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: He nailed together some pieces of wood, put sacks that used to hold Sichuan peppercorns over that and covered them with thatch.

Mr. LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: It was cold in the winter, he says, but what could we do. Lee hopes his family can move into the new home by July. His face crinkles with delight as he thanks Elizabeth Hausler for keeping tabs on the quality.

Mr. LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

Dr. HAUSLER: It's our pleasure. We're very happy to be here.

Mr. LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

Dr. HAUSLER: We'll have staff out here almost every day so you'll always have someone from Build Change that you can ask a question.

Mr. LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: So we're standing here in front of Mr. Lee's house. What do you think Elizabeth when you look at this house?

Dr. HAUSLER: Mr. Lee's got some good masons. So we've seen some good masonry in China and some bad masonry in China, but he looks like he's gotten pretty lucky, so he's gotten off to a good start.

BLOCK: But she's concerned he doesn't have enough steel framing his new home to make it earthquake resistant. She'll want him to fix that to reinforce the masonry.

Dr. HAUSLER: When we use reinforced concrete columns and beams around the masonry walls they act like a rubber band. They tie the walls together so if the wall cracks a little bit, it won't collapse.

BLOCK: You know, I'd think these are people who don't have a lot of money - Mr. Lee was just talking about being a poor farmer. I can imagine easily that they would think well, sure I would love to have more steel. I'd love to have better masonry. I'd love to have a lot of things. I can't afford it.

Dr. HAUSLER: Yeah, we get that a lot, especially when I come along because they automatically expect that I'm going to want them to build to a higher standard that they can achieve. But we've managed to kind of condense our suggestions down to what makes the biggest impact, the most important things that need to be done to make the house safe.

BLOCK: Elizabeth Hausler has traveled to earthquakes zones all around the world, after quakes in India, Iran, Indonesia, Peru and now China.

Mr. YANG TINGMING (Communist Party Secretary, Xinle): (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: The village party secretary, Yang Tingming, comes by the work site. He's got a heavy key chain on his belt loop and a concerned look on his face.

Mr. YANG: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: He says, what I care about most is quality. What I worry about most is also quality.

Do you worry about what would happen if another earthquake were to hit this area?

Mr. YANG: (Through translator) I'm not worried. If we had houses built like this before the earthquake, we wouldn't have had problems.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. YANG: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: A village woman chimes in: We felt aftershocks yesterday and the day before. We all felt them.

How strong?

Mr. YANG: (Through translator) Mild, rather mild, but we could feel it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: (Through translator) Look, we went through an 8.0 earthquake. This was nothing, what we call a little kiss. Not a big deal.

BLOCK: Robert, there's villages in Xilne in Sichuan, China, talking about aftershocks there. And there have been thousands of aftershocks since the earthquake last year - most of them very mild, but certainly enough to rattle people's nerves, as well as their roof tiles. Elizabeth Hausler of Build Change says she hopes they're giving these homeowners a sense of security, giving them peace of mind along with their stronger homes.

SIEGEL: Melissa, it sounds like a race against the clock.

BLOCK: It is. And she says for some people, for people who have already got their buildings going up with inferior construction, she's too late. But she does figure that even with a small staff, 16 people in this one small corner of this huge earthquake zone, that they can make maybe six or 7,000 homes safer. And that represents about 20 or 30,000 people.

SIEGEL: Are they building according to any codes that'll actually be enforced?

BLOCK: That's been a little confusing. There was a disaster management law that was passed last year. It requires rural buildings, like the ones we saw, to withstand an earthquake. But there are really no teeth. There are a lot of guidelines, but no mandates. That said, Elizabeth Hausler told me that based on what she's seen absolutely, people are rebuilding way better than before.

SIEGEL: So the new village will be significantly different from the old one.

BLOCK: It looks completely different. I mean, you'll remember from your time here that old homes in the countryside were scattered around fields in a pretty random way. These new houses are very close together. They're all in one long, neat row, one right after the other, laid out on a grid - very orderly. And the idea behind this kind of consolidation, one of the ideas, is it makes it easier for the government eventually to provide public services like water and sewage and trash. The tradeoff, though, for the people may be that they end up losing some living space, and eventually, that'll mean more land that the government can use for development.

I should mention one other thing here, Robert, and that has to do with the pace of all this. The government wants this rebuilding to happen quickly - millions of people, as we said, have been left homeless - and they're losing patience. There are fears of social unrest, instability if they don't get people into these new homes fast.

SIEGEL: So a race against the clock in many ways. Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's our co-host Melissa Block reporting this week from Sichuan Province in China. And you can see photos of those homes being built and read our blog, Chengdu Diary, all at

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