PCR TOOL 11
Defining Standards for
On January 12th 2010, an earthquake measuring
7.0 on the Richter scale struck Haïti, killing
222,570 people. Less than two months later,
on February 28th, a quake measuring a massive
8.8 hit the Concepción region of Chile but killed
562 people. Both earthquakes affected heavily
populated areas so how was it possible that an
earthquake nearly a hundred times stronger led
to 400 times less casualties. A major factor in
this was Chile’s adoption of high quality building
standards that incorporate requirements for
disaster-resistance. These are both applied properly,
and affordable for the Chilean people to comply
Haïti also has standards, but they are more
lenient than those in Chile. Furthermore,
these standards are often poorly implemented,
(with inspection turning a blind eye) and most
importantly unaffordable for the large proportion
of the population to comply with. The lesson from
these two disastrous events is that good building
standards can save lives, but they need to be
properly implemented and inspected, and above all,
Poverty is still widespread in the developing
world and there is ample evidence that with
disasters of a similar size, poor countries suffer
more than rich countries. Similarly, the poor in any
country tend to suffer more than the rich (see PCR
Tool 10: Quality Control). Poverty is a key factor in
determining what level of building quality people
can afford. Countries define that level of quality
through a regulatory framework that includes acts,
regulations, standards etc. (see the section on
Definitions for details on the various components).
Within those frameworks, standards are the most
important component to define disaster resistance.
Unfortunately, many of the regulatory frameworks in
place in the developing world borrow heavily from
the developed world, making them inappropriate
and unaffordable for the poor. Furthermore, disaster
resistance can be inadequately covered by the
frameworks, but including additional requirements
would reduce affordability further.
Unaffordable standards are a likely factor to add
to the loss of life from disasters. In many countries,
sub-standard housing is considered illegal and can
be demolished by the authorities. Therefore, home
owners who know they will never be able to meet
the standards are often inclined to under-invest
in housing, as they risk losing such investments.
They may not even make the small improvements or
carry out the proper maintenance that could help to
reduce their risks.
Donations of aid for reconstruction are high
following large-scale disasters. This influx of money
can help to overcome affordability problems and
enable the reconstruction of housing that meets
disaster-resistant building standards. Out of
hundreds of people interviewed after the tsunami
in Sri Lanka, 41% answered that housing built
afterwards had much better walls and 58% said it
had a much better roof than the house they owned
before the disaster; it often was larger too. The
question, however, is whether people can maintain
the standard of building if they expand their house
in the future, or build a house for their children.
How sustainable are standards that need to be
After observing the impact of disasters
on buildings (see PCR Tool 3: Learning from
Disasters), we know that some of the traditional
ways of building in many countries do stand up
relatively well to disasters. Also, with limited
improvements such vernacular technologies
can become even more disaster-resistant. Thus,
the timber frame (dhajji dewari) houses of rural
Pakistan, which were on the decline before a
photo © Practical Action Latin America
Improved quincha, used here in reconstruction after an
earthquake in Chincha, Peru, is proven to have good earthquake
What makes construction vulnerable to
disasters in developing countries?
From assessments of disaster damage in many
countries, we know that the absence of a proper
regulatory framework, its improper implementation
or incomplete use (as highlighted above), is only
one of the factors having an impact on the scale of
damage. Others include:
• Poorly defined knowledge and mapping of
disaster hazards and risks;
• Insufficient awareness of disaster hazards and
• Lack of preparedness planning or early warning
of impending events;
• Lack of protective infrastructure such as flood
barriers or slope stabilisation;
• Poor quality and unreliability of infrastructure
• Poor quality materials and insufficient quality
control of building techniques;
• Low priority for emergency evacuation and safe
These and other deficiencies in mitigating the
impact of disasters have a number of underlying
photo © Practical Action / Colin Palmer
recent earthquake, became a popular option for
reconstruction. The advantage of using vernacular
technologies is that they use local knowledge, skills
and materials, and tend to be affordable. But in
many countries no standards exist for them which
limits their acceptability, (for example because the
regulatory framework does not accommodate them,
or because building professionals, whose studies
focused on modern materials and technologies are
reluctant to venture into unknown territory).
Disaster-resistant building standards can
certainly help reduce the loss of life and property
when natural hazards strike. However, the standards
currently in place in many countries do not reduce
risk for their poor. To achieve this, they need to be
changed, primarily to be made more affordable. If
they are not, they could do more harm than good.
There is a lot of variety in how people in
different countries build, and what disasters they
are vulnerable to. Describing in detail the technical
standards that provide disaster-resistance in all
those different contexts would require a book, not
a simple tool. Besides, there is a growing amount
of literature, (some of which is included in the
Resources section), that describes how particular
ways of building can be made more resistant to a
range of disasters. This tool therefore focuses on
the possible approaches to setting and achieving
an adequate standard of disaster-resistant
The rapid urbanisation of Lima forced some people to build their
houses on very unstable slopes.
• Widespread poverty;
• Lack of education;
• The need for many poor people to prioritise
immediate needs (ie day to day survival) over
• Rapid urbanisation - including a tendency to
concentrate large populations in vulnerable
locations such as steep slopes or flood plains;
• Lack of secure tenure;
• Landlords placing profit before the safety of
• Lack of capacity and resources of local and
• Poor governance, including complex
bureaucracies, a lack of popular voice and
Getting the standards right is therefore
not necessarily enough to guarantee reduced
disaster impact. Furthermore, the above factors
may actually hinder both the development and
implementation of appropriate standards.
PCR Tool 3: Learning from Disasters provides
the most common structural factors that lead to
disaster damage to buildings for example a lack
of disaster-resistant features, poor quality work or
materials, or a lack of maintenance. These are the
issues that standards and regulations can improve.
PCR Tool 8: Participatory Design gives some of the
design principles for withstanding major disasters,
which should be considered too.
What difference can standards make?
After almost every major disaster in a developing
country, people have called for building standards
to be tightened and enforced more strictly. After
all, this has worked to reduce the impact of
natural disasters in more developed countries. But
can the same approach work in the developing
world? The above section has already argued that
Building in developing countries
Building in developed countries
Between 40 and 90% of housing and private commercial
buildings are constructed without former title of land or
property, i.e. considered informal.
The vast majority of buildings are formally registered.
A lot of building work is carried out by owners with the
help of family or friends and sometimes building artisans
Most building work is executed by contractors.
A lot of housing is incremental, starting small, but
expanding and/or improving in quality over time, as
Most housing is a one-off final product that meets quality
standards from the onset.
Vernacular construction is still significant, based on
traditions that can date back a long time. It is important
in rural locations, but diminishing where urbanisation
Vernacular buildings are mainly of historical interest.
Nearly all current construction uses standardised socalled modern materials and products.
Many countries are still predominantly rural, though
urbanising rapidly, with a high concentration of people in
and around one large city. In most rural areas, building
standards and regulations do not apply; quality is defined
Nearly all countries are highly urbanised, with a good
balance between large and middle size cities.
In urban areas, a significant proportion of housing is
in slums, usually far below prevailing standards. Close
to 1 billion people live in slums; they tend to be very
Very little of the housing stock can be considered slums
in most countries.
For many people, their home is also their workplace.
Strict zoning regulations mean that few commercial
activities can be undertaken from home.
Few building artisans have had formal education or
training in building skills. Most learnt their craft from
other builders. Many countries do not have a formal
register of builders.
Builders need formal education and a qualification in
building to be considered skilled. Trade associations for
builders and contractors usually exist as well.
There is unlikely to be a formal certification process for
new materials, products and techniques.
There usually is a formal approval and certification
process for new materials, products and techniques that
also provides quality and performance specifications.
Many buildings are not built to conform to standards,
either because they are in locations where standards do
not apply, or because they are in informal settlements
where standards get ignored. For buildings that do
comply, inspection may be lax or corrupt; thus bad
practice is overlooked.
The systems for checking, approval and issue of building
permits and completion are usually thorough. Almost
all construction requires approval, except for small
temporary buildings. Compliance with building standards
and regulations is therefore high.
Many countries do not have their own systems of building
regulations and standards. They often use the standards
of their former colonial power or other developed country
without significant revision to reflect their own context.
Consideration of country-specific disaster risks might also
Building regulations and standards are often countryspecific, but some are internationally or regionally
agreed (e.g. by ISO). They are regularly updated to
reflect new knowledge and legislation or to overcome
specific problems that have emerged with aspects. They
incorporate measures to mitigate disaster risks of the
As many buildings are owner-built, the owner is often
present for much of the construction and so ensures that
the work is completed to his or her requirements. Where
no formal building codes or standards are followed,
diligent supervision by an owner can still help to
ensure that the outcome is a good and disaster resilient
Ensuring quality of construction is usually the
responsibility of the architect (if one is employed),
building contractor and building inspector. Users or
owners are far less involved in day to day construction.
There is then some risk that the final building is not
entirely to their satisfaction.
developed countries are often inappropriate for
developing countries (see e.g. Yahya et al., 2001).
Reform of regulations can take several decades
because of the need to pay attention also to the
processes of applying, decision making, appealing,
communicating with applicants, record keeping and
dealing with non-compliance. If those processes
are too complex and costly, few property owners will
bother to comply (see e.g. de Soto, 1989: chapter
2). It is important for reform to have a group of
champions who manage to overcome the obstacles
thrown in their way by stakeholders who have
something to gain from maintaining the status quo.
In People-Centred Reconstruction, people are
what matters most. In other Tools and a Position
Paper on PCR, we have argued that the ultimate
aim of PCR is more than just achieving safer
housing; it is to make the people themselves more
resilient. In the reconstruction process itself, this
means empowering them by involving them much
more in decision making. The process should not
just aim to rebuild houses, but also livelihoods,
local markets and social networks, as these all are
crucial in generating resilience.
If people are what matters most, then standards
should protect people first and foremost, and aim to
substantially reduce the number of casualties that
natural disasters cause. Lives cannot be replaced,
but buildings and other assets can, and often
are with the aid that is given following disasters.
Applying this principle to building practice, means
that a certain amount of damage to buildings could
be acceptable, but their collapse on people inside
should be prevented.
This thought can be translated into regulations
and standards to define the weight and integrity
of roofs and intermediate floors, the strength and
technologies for supporting structures, and their
connections. However, if for example walls have
no structural contribution, they could be allowed
to be relatively flimsy. For certain types of high-
photo © Practical Action / Theo Schilderman
improving standards alone does not guarantee
safer construction. There are some important
differences between building housing in developed
and developing countries which would have to
be considered when deciding how to make postdisaster reconstruction safer. These differences are
summarised on page 3.
When there is a lack of capacity in a developing
country to devise standards in specialist areas,
such as disaster resistant structures, it becomes
tempting to adopt the standards of developed
countries that have proven to withstand disasters.
Thus, several Latin American countries have
adopted standards for earthquake resistance
from the USA, and Asian countries have derived
standards from Japan or New Zealand. This often
only had a limited positive impact, because:
• The standards are set at a very high level which
makes them unaffordable to a majority in
• The standards over-emphasize engineering
solutions, encouraging the use of modern
materials and techniques by building
contractors, rather than allowing for informal
construction. They overlook vernacular
construction and its own disaster-resistant
• The capacity for adequate implementation and
inspection is often lacking.
The adoption of such ‘ideal’ standards may
have worked for some buildings, but generally has
helped make low-income housing less vulnerable to
disasters. That is not to say that having standards
is wrong, just that they need to be fit for purpose.
Having the best standards may only protect a small
proportion of the population. Instead, moderate
standards with simple processes of compliance
might be able to protect a majority from all but the
highest magnitude disasters.
Finally, some consideration needs to be given to
retro-fitting as an option for strengthening existing
dwellings, some of which may have suffered
repairable damage. Rather than replacing such
dwellings with entirely new ones of a high standard,
retro-fitting is a much more cost-efficient solution
for providing disaster resistance. Standards for
reconstruction should therefore not just cover new
buildings, but also the retro-fitting of existing ones.
A People-Centred view of standards
Historically, building regulations, codes and
standards were developed to ensure protection of
people from illness, injury and accidental death
when they live, work-in or visit a building. However,
this system of building control developed largely
for the public good has often failed to deliver
an adequate level of protection against natural
disasters in developing countries. Past experience
shows that regulatory frameworks derived from
The inhabitants of this house in Moquegua, Peru had a narrow
escape, because the failing roof slid sideways rather than falling
in on them.
magnitude hazards, such as tropical storms or
floods and tsunamis people can be warned of
their approach. In these cases, lives could be
saved through evacuation into disaster-resistant
shelters or to safe locations such as high ground
at community level. These shelters could have
alternative uses when there are no imminent
hazards, which would help to avoid the high cost
involved in increasing the resistance level of a lot of
housing from medium to high.
In PCR, it is important to involve the end users
in thinking about the types and levels of standards,
regulations and compliance processes required for
disaster-resistant reconstruction. In considering
how regulatory frameworks could be made to work
better for housing the urban poor Payne and Majale
(2004) outlined a series of guiding principles on
which the conceptualisation of such frameworks
would need to be based. These guiding principles,
summarised in the table below, can also be useful
for deciding on standards and regulations for postdisaster reconstruction.
Similarly, it is worth considering the newly
revised minimum Sphere standards for Shelter and
Settlement (The Sphere Project, 2011). Whilst
Guiding principles for getting standards right
• Recognise and accept the realities on the ground
• Focus on key aspects of public concern
• Understand and acknowledge knowledge and
information systems of people living in poverty
• Adopt an enabling role
• Invest in precedents drawn from targeted
research and pilot projects
• Strengthen inclusiveness
• Promote partnerships between key stakeholders
• Facilitate local ownership of processes
• Identify champions of change and create a
• Apply rules consistently
• Integrate planning and development strategies
• Accept regulations as a process rather than a
• Acknowledge the principles of incremental
• Guarantee access to information
• Take advantage of windows of opportunity
• Build institutional capacity
• Cultivate political and professional will
• Consider enforcement still as important,
although enforcement mechanisms may have to
be modified from those conventionally used for
the regulation of construction.
Minimum Sphere standards for shelter and
1. Strategic planning: Shelter and settlement
strategies contribute to the security, safety,
health and well-being of both displaced and
non-displaced affected populations and promote
recovery and reconstruction where possible.
2. Settlement planning: The planning of return,
host or temporary communal settlements enables
the safe and secure use of accommodation and
essential services by the affected population.
3. Covered living space: People have sufficient
covered living space providing thermal comfort,
fresh air and protection from the climate
ensuring their privacy, safety and health and
enabling essential household and livelihood
activities to be undertaken.
4. Construction: Local safe building practices,
materials, expertise and capacities are used
where appropriate, maximising the involvement
of the affected population and local livelihood
5. Environmental impact: Shelter and settlement
solutions and the material sourcing and
construction techniques used minimise adverse
impact on the local natural environment.
these standards are focused on emergency and
transitional shelter, the underlying principles are
often also valid for permanent reconstruction.
Approaches to determining the quality
When deciding how to set the level of construction
quality in reconstruction after disasters (or for the
mitigation of them), authorities and agencies have
a number of options that include:
• adopting international standards
• adhering to a national framework
• setting regulations in the context of a specific
• Allowing users to decide on quality.
In People-Centred Reconstruction, it is
important for the people affected by disasters to
have a say not just in how houses are designed or
constructed, but also in what level of quality should
be adopted. If other stakeholders set quality at
levels that appear unachievable or unreasonable
to those people, it can subsequently become quite
difficult to obtain their interest and participation in
projects. What approach is most appropriate is very
much dependent on the local context and needs to
be decided on a case-by-case basis.