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Poor construction in Haiti was a major reason why so many people -- up to 300,000 according to the president -- died when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the impoverished nation in January, architects and disaster specialists said.
And in quake-prone Chile where an earthquake and a subsequent tsunami killed about 500 people in February, the government is investigating to what extent rules on fortifying buildings against seismic shocks were followed.
"You don't need to be helpless, you can build safer, you can build better to reduce both the financial cost but of course also the life (cost)," Margareta Wahlstrom, U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction told Reuters by telephone.
"It's not the earthquake that kills people, it's the buildings that collapse in the earthquake."
While some countries put great emphasis on erecting buildings that can survive tropical storms, floods or earthquakes, many others lag far behind, she said.
Safe construction is not part of international development policies either, Wahlstrom said, adding that she hopes it will now be included after Haiti and Chile.
A step in that direction is a new handbook for rebuilding after natural disasters released by the World Bank last week.
Building well matters also because in the months and years after a disaster, reconstruction is where the biggest sums of international aid money go once emergency needs -- for tents, medicines and so on -- have been dealt with.
Safer buildings alone will not always prevent deaths. Houses should be located away from hazardous areas, where possible, and combined with an early warning system, evacuation plans and public education on what to do when a disaster strikes.
But as part of an overall strategy to minimize deaths and destruction, intelligent building design is one of the most straightforward solutions.
For example, shutters on windows will prevent wind from blowing through the building and lifting it off the ground. Tying the roof to the walls will stop it from being blown off.
To protect new buildings against earthquakes, walls can be reinforced with criss-crossing diagonal steel beams or concrete columns. Such -- often life-saving -- features add less than 10 percent on average to building costs, experts say.
Designs should take account of what resources are affordable and available locally. For example, in areas where water is short, building concrete houses is not viable as making concrete requires a lot of water.
While there is no shortage of clever ideas, implementation can be complicated, especially in developing countries.
For a start, most people in poor nations live in houses that they have built themselves, mostly without an understanding of structural engineering or knowledge of ways to make them safer.
Rolling out a nationwide campaign for safer construction of homes may have the greatest impact in the long term, experts from engineering firm Arup say.
However, organizations involved in post-disaster reconstruction can help by building houses that can be easily replicated by local people. Those willing to build their own homes can be trained how to build with disasters in mind.
Training in how to build safely is one of the services that a new consulting center in Haiti's capital will provide.
Architecture for Humanity, a non-profit design and building group, is planning to open the center in April for three years.
In countries where corruption is rife, all building work should be monitored closely to ensure no money or materials go astray and construction standards are respected.
Those leading rebuilding efforts after a disaster, should involve local people in the design and construction as much as possible, experts say.
"The one thing you can do in a disaster is use the reconstruction as a mechanism to create jobs," Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, told Reuters.
"Within about a year, after being in those tents so long, the community's number one issue is not housing but jobs," he said in a telephone interview.
Once survivors of a disaster occupy a new home, they may want to change it by knocking down a wall or adding on, both of which could weaken the carefully designed building.
"Organizations should allow for this in their housing designs, and provide training so that people know how to adapt or extend their homes safely," Arup architects say.
House designs should suit also suit tastes and culture.
Otherwise, as aid group Oxfam put it in a blog, "the charitable gesture by the giver becomes the hat you wouldn't wear in a million years or, in the case of disaster survivors, the house that drives you crazy."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)
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