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Career story: Leonie Grover, Turner & Townsend on Nepal’s hospitals

Leonie Grover has been in Nepal leading a pro bono surveying project focusing on hospitals as part of the country’s post earthquake reconstruction response. What did she find? 

How did  Turner & Townsend become involved?

Turner & Townsend’s involvement with Nepal goes back several years. In August 2012, together with the consultants Ramboll, we were appointed under the Nepal Hospital Seismic Reduction Programme (NHSRP) to carry out a seismic vulnerability assessment of major hospitals in Nepal. This was to identify priority hospitals for structural retrofitting and manage a programme of hospital retrofitting in selected hospitals.

According to the Global Earthquake Survey Initiative, Kathmandu was, at the time, the most at-risk city in the world in terms of potential deaths due to earthquakes. This is largely due to the risk of building collapse during a potential earthquake, and insufficient preparedness and medical response capacity.

In Nepal, hospital infrastructure is in extremely poor condition and the majority of hospitals would collapse in the event of a major earthquake. Surveys in 2002 and 2003 identified that 80% of assessed hospitals in Nepal were in the ‘poor performance’ category for newly constructed buildings and the remaining 20% deemed at high risk of life-threatening collapse.

In the wake of 2015’s two devastating earthquakes in Nepal, Turner & Townsend and Ramboll felt that it was important to use some of the knowledge acquired from the NHSRP to give something back to Nepal and the offer of the pro bono work was born.

What was the mission?

T&T and its supply partner Ramboll undertook pro bono assessment of nine hospitals in and around the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. On the ground in Nepal the team was assisted by local engineering consultant John Sanday Associates (JSA).

The aim of this work was to provide the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Government of Nepal with a budget costing estimate of the hospital buildings that has been assigned a “red” or “yellow” sticker due to assessed damage following the earthquakes in Nepal in April and May 2015.

The engineering focus was on finding methods to economically repair the damage, rather than undertake a full structural retrofit, with the final goal being reoccupation with seismic resilient remedial measures undertaken (rather than full modelling and ‘code compliance’).

How long were you there?

A team of engineers was deployed to Nepal to survey nine hospitals in and around the Kathmandu valley. Deadlines for the work were extremely tight in order to feed the results of the surveys into the Government of Nepal’s 2015-16 budgets. The team arrived in Nepal on 11th June  and departed on 20th June. Each engineer was teamed with a local engineer from JSA with each team taking responsibility for surveying an allocated number of hospitals.

Following the surveys, work continued in the United Kingdom to develop the design, records and costings for the repairs. Turner & Townsend and Ramboll then flew out to Nepal in early July to present the findings and costs to the Government of Nepal, International agencies such as WHO and to our client DFID.

How did you get involved?

I am the Turner & Townsend programme manager on the NHSRP project. After the earthquakes my Ramboll colleagues and I wanted to take the opportunity to use the knowledge gained on the hospital programme to provide support to the UK aid effort for Nepal and to the Government of Nepal.

What did the team find post-earthquake?

The team found similar issues with many of the 51 buildings surveyed at the nine hospitals.  These issues can be simply summarised as follows:

For reinforced concrete framed buildings

  • Damage or complete failure of the column to beam joints
  • Significant cracking or collapse of infill (non-structural) masonry panels
  • Damaged from pounding which occurs when the joint between adjacent buildings is to narrow and they “knock together”.

For masonry Buildings

  • Significant cracking or collapse of load bearing walls.
  • Wall panels “peeling away from the rest of building
  • Total collapse “pancaking” of the building.

Whilst the buildings have no doubt suffered, in some cases beyond recovery, the degree of resilience is encouraging. However, this does not mean that they would survive equally well under a similar seismic event, and remedial measures are necessary.

How had the hospitals stood up against the earthquake?

The damage in the hospitals ranged from catastrophic failure to the requirement for minor repairs.  This is not wholly unexpected as the buildings are of different ages and construction types.

How did real earthquake activity compare to the effects predicted in the earlier study?

The evidence from our post-earthquake surveys of the same buildings indicated that the reinforced concrete framed buildings have fared better in the earthquake than the masonry structures.  The purpose of our pro bono work was to quickly assess the buildings and not to carry out a rigorous analysis of their performance.  The immediate concern was to make the hospital building operational as soon as possible.  However, the type and location of damage observed on the buildings is consistent with the predicted locations in our earlier study.

What is the scale of the repair work?

From the nine hospitals surveyed it is fair to say that the scale of the repair work needed is significant and will take a considerable amount of time and resource to return the hospital infrastructure to the pre-earthquake condition.  On a positive note some buildings we surveyed will require only minimal repair work to return them to use.

What are the weaknesses in existing buildings and the strengths?

One of the main weaknesses in the existing buildings is the older masonry structures that were constructed before the need for seismic engineering.  Masonry buildings in general perform poorly in earthquakes and strengthening is usually necessary.  The alternative is complete replacement of these buildings with reinforced concrete framed structures, designed and built to the current codes.

An interesting aspect of the performance of some of the concrete framed buildings has been the ‘shock absorber’ effect of the masonry infill panels. The panels should not have been hard-jointed against the RC frame in accordance with the codes. However the fact that they were has allowed a degree of resilience that some of the frames alone would not have had. This is not to say that the hard-jointing was ‘a good thing’ but it does give food for thought when considering retrofit options to increase robustness.

What needs to be done short term, medium and long term?

In the short term the Government of Nepal has focused on making sure that structures that are assessed, that those that are unsafe are either made safe or demolished. Work is now underway to review damage and set the budgets for repair. As part of this work the Government will need to take a view on the requirement for not only repairing but retrofitting buildings to strengthen them against any future seismic events.

Aware that there is still seismic activity in Nepal, the government will need to undertake an extensive programme of re-building and retrofitting in the longer term. There is a selection of ‘easy wins’ and ‘robustness enhancements’ that would significantly improve the buildings without necessarily making them fully code complaint. This programme of work, owing to its scale, will undoubtedly require significant foreign investment and skills.

How long before Nepal and its hospitals are back to normal?

There is no doubt that the re-build process in Nepal will take a long time, and the cost of the earthquake will be many times greater than the country’s GDP. The Government of Nepal is rightly focusing on making sure that any rebuilding is undertaken in accordance with the correct building codes. Priority has been given to make sure that any unsafe structures are removed.

What value can UK engineering practices bring to post disaster work in Nepal?

One of the biggest challenges for the re-building effort in Nepal is supervising the work to make sure that rebuilding and retro-fitting work is designed and constructed in accordance with the current building and seismic codes. However, there does need to be a review of the codes and guidance we are recommending as a profession in the wake of the empirical evidence we are seeing. The codes as they stand are good, but perhaps do not represent the full picture of what is required.

There is an exercise to be undertaken reviewing the conditions that brought about dramatically different response of neighbouring structures of similar building form. Perhaps we can be part of an exercise bringing our expertise and understanding to assist local engineers in their development of solutions and knowledge within this complex environment.

Leonie Grover is associate director at Turner & Townsend