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German Expert Wants to Make Iran Quake-Safe

After the earthquake in Iran, many experts blame the adobe structures, which crumbled like sand, for the devastation. One German professor believes adobe can be made safe, and he wants to show the Iranians how.

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Can better adobe construction techniques help prevent another disaster?

Two weeks after the devastating earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam claimed more than 35,000 lives, rescue workers are still pulling bodies from the rubble of the city's adobe buildings. Many blame the adobe for the degree of devastation because though it may be cheaper, it is far less resistant to the violent shaking of a strong earthquake than concrete or brick structures.

But Gernot Minke, an architecture professor from the German city of Kassel, says adobe construction can be made safe, and he wants to bring his innovative techniques to Iran.

It's not the adobe, but how you put it together

In many earthquake prone areas of the world, adobe is a popular form of construction -- it's cheap and plentiful. Sadly, the adobe bricks, which are made of clay, mud and sand, and dried in the sun, are not as strong as regular bricks, which are baked in an oven. That's why adobe has been outlawed in some areas, including the Andies nations of South America.

Professor Minke, however, thinks the adobe materials have been unfairly blamed for the catastrophe, and the construction methods, not the adobe itself, are the culprit. He has spent 25 years developing a more resilient building program, which, he says, could be applied in Iran.

"After the last big earthquake in Salvador," says Professor Minke, "research showed that the houses made of oven-baked bricks using the same construction methods were just as likely to collapse." The adobe bricks are traditionally piled one on top of the other, plastered over, and a roof smacked on top of the whole thing. When subjected to the violent horizontal shaking of an earthquake, the roofs slips and caves in, while the walls collapse towards the outside.

Buildings better buildings

Professor Minke believes that the corners of the buildings should be made stronger, to reinforce the very heavy adobe building material. But, most importantly, he feels all four walls should be bound together by a so-called "circular beam" to tie the four walls together and prevent them from caving in as a result of side-to-side movement. What's more, the ceilings should be made of a much more light-weight insulated material and there should be more space between the windows and door casings.

Of course, these techniques will cost more money. Nonetheless, Professor Minke is hoping he can convince the Iranian government to take his advice: he and three other professors – if their funding is approved -- would like to go to Iran and share their know-how with local construction workers. "The next step is to go there and conduct workshops aimed at showing locals the mistakes they've made and offering them solutions," he says.

But before he can begin, the Iranians must first finish clearing away the rubble.

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