Case 01-2: Applying for Earthquake Recovery Assistance

The following is a summary of visitor responses and comments on the case study presented on the Web site between July and October 2001. It is intended to be a factual portrayal of trends and individual comments without editorial input from EERI staff.

Review The Situation:

Buildings R Us owns a warehouse building located in the historic district of Metroville, a city in a region of high seismic hazard. The warehouse, a four-story unreinforced masonry building, is considered historically significant, but is not officially listed. Buildings R Us is aware of the fact that the building represents a seismic hazard and has been considering seismic rehabilitation. The owner would prefer to demolish the building and replace it; however, this is not financially viable, and there would be strong community protests.

While the possibilities of rehabilitation are being considered, a moderate earthquake hits Metroville. The warehouse appears to have sustained significant structural damage, and Buildings R Us contracts with ABC Engineers to perform a post-earthquake evaluation. After making extensive site observations and running limited calculations, the engineers conclude that the damage is repairable, but they recommend limited access until several areas of the building are shored and braced.

To Buildings R Us, though admittedly not experienced in structural engineering, the damage looks much worse, and they question whether the building can be returned to its original condition, much less adequately strengthened. In addition, they are aware that government agencies are providing disaster relief to various building owners whose buildings have collapsed or nearly collapsed. With the belief that government aid would allow them to replace the warehouse, Buildings R Us requests that ABC Engineers revise their recommendations and state that the damage is not repairable.

ABC Engineers has worked with Buildings R Us before, had been selected for the seismic rehabilitation project, would likely work on any earthquake repair work, and feels that they would be in a good position to be selected as the structural engineer for the replacement building (which would certainly involve a much bigger fee than the repair/rehabilitation). However, they truly believe that the damage is repairable and strengthening is still possible.

What should ABC Engineers do?

Response Summary:

Although a majority of the respondents suggested that ABC Engineers should not alter the report, some indicated that ABC Engineers could add details for a building replacement option if requested by the owner. Either way, it was stressed that the report should contain unbiased (to the extent possible) facts, analysis results, and engineering data that will put the client in the best possible position to make a decision.

Recommended Actions:

Readers were asked to rate several possible actions – considering the interests of all stakeholders – based on the following scale. The actions are listed in no particular order, and the rating for each action is the average of the ratings gathered.

5 – Strongly Agree
4 – Agree
3 – Neutral
2 – Disagree
1 – Strongly Disagree

  1. Refuse to revise the post-earthquake evaluation on the grounds that going after disaster relief aid for replacement would be unethical since replacement is not structurally required.
    Average Rating: 3.9
    (min: 3, max: 5)
  2. Refuse to revise the post-earthquake evaluation on the grounds that demolishing a historically important building would be unethical since replacement is not required.
    Average Rating: 2.9
    (min: 1, max: 4)
  3. Revise the post-earthquake evaluation to indicate that demolition is recommended. Provide wording that implies repair would not be practical.
    Average Rating: 2.6
    (min: 1, max: 5)
  4. Revise the post-earthquake evaluation to indicate that either repair or demolition is possible, don’t provide a recommendation option, and let the owner decide which option to pursue.
    Average Rating: 3.6
    (min: 2, max: 5)
  5. In order to satisfy the client revise the post-earthquake evaluation to indicate that demolition is required. Word the report such that it appears that additional observations and/or analyses have led to the revised conclusion. (Internal justification could include the fact that the new building is expected to provide more reliable seismic performance than the retrofitted existing building).
    Average Rating: 1.9
    (min: 1, max: 4)

Readers were asked what additional information would have put them in a better position to pick an alternative.

Based on the readers’ comments, the following is a listing (in no particular order) of relevant information that would have assisted in making a better decision:

  1. More information on the seismic hazard (expected magnitude and frequency of earthquakes).
  2. More information on the extent of damage and the feasibility of repair.
  3. Cost and performance information for comparison between the repair and replace options.
  4. Information on building owner and financial state of the company.
  5. Building occupancy load and value of contents.
  6. Whether or not the local building jurisdiction has requirements for repair of damaged buildings and how they would apply to this case.

Readers were then asked to offer a suggested course of action for the ABC Engineers. The following is a brief summary of the suggestions. As is the nature of ethical dilemmas, there is no right or wrong answer, and many courses of action could be considered equally valid depending on individual values and/or interpretation of events.

A majority of the respondents suggested that ABC Engineers should not alter the report. The report should contain an honest, professional evaluation of the building and should present conclusions based on an unbiased interpretation of the facts.

Another group of readers indicated that ABC Engineers could add details for a building replacement option if requested by the owner. The revised report should not point to replacement as the only option, but could list it as an alternative for the owner to consider.

People in both of these groups stated that, ultimately, the report should contain the facts, analysis results, and engineering data that will put the client in the best possible position to make a decision. This information could include various options with their associated costs and seismic performance objectives.

This case would likely come down to a business decision based on the relative costs of the alternatives with consideration given to the prospects of achieving acceptable seismic performance for each option. To this end, the engineers must report the information to the best of their understanding, without falsely supporting one option over another or leaving out any viable options from the report.

Comments on Question for Further Thought:

Finally, readers were asked to respond to the following question:

Could it be ethically permitted for an engineer to skew their understanding of a building’s condition, making it appear worse than it really is, in an effort to help their client obtain funding for a project?

Everyone who responded to this question agreed that no, the engineer could not ethically alter the findings to support a conclusion that goes against his/her professional understanding. However, more than one respondent noted that while any one engineer should stick to his/her conclusions, there can be a significant amount of subjectivity involved in reaching those conclusions. A different engineer could have reached a different conclusion without behaving unethically.