The Great Tohoku Earthquake: Part 3 – Wood Not so Good?

Posted by Jim Ivanoff
March 21st, 2011

It has been ten days since the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, but life is still not returning to normal for the people in the Kanto (greater Tokyo) and Tohoku regions. The search for earthquake/tsunami survivors continues while one of the damaged nuclear reactors started releasing radioactive steam again yesterday. Even in areas not heavily damaged by the earthquake, rolling blackouts in addition to shortages of food and gasoline are keeping a lot of people from returning to work. Seeing darkened Tokyo neighbourhoods that are usually brighter than day with neon lights makes me wonder if things will ever return to normal.

In addition to the terrible human tragedy, watching the frightening scenes of the tsunami sweeping away entire villages left me to wonder if construction industry in Japan would be able to return to “normal.” As I have mentioned in another article, about 40% of Japan’s plywood production has been wiped out.  For this reason, Japanese government agencies are now trying to secure whatever plywood they can for the relief effort creating shortages for builders in unaffected areas . This has led builders of all sizes to a rush to find supplies in North America, but JAS requirements are limiting the options. In the short-term this situation is bound to curtail new construction starts across the country.

While the plywood situation should work itself out with time, the long-term impact of those tsunami images might be much more complicated for wood framed construction in Japan. Over the past few years both Canadian associations like COFI and Japanese government organizations looking to boost the prospects of domestic wood producers have been pushing a move to construct larger buildings out of wood. COFI in particular has been successful in getting operators of seniors homes to use 2×4 construction over concrete as wood offers many advantages such as shorter construction times, accelerated tax benefits through depreciation, lower demolition costs, etc.. As an industry we had been hoping that momentum was building for such wood construction. Unfortunately, the video footage of the tsunami wiping away wood buildings while concrete ones for the most part remained will present a large challenge to further promoting large public buildings made out of wood.

During World War II the Americans burned down most of Japan’s major cities through an intense fire-bombing campaign. As a result, the Japanese government brought in some of the toughest fire codes after the war meaning that these cities that had been built from wood could only be rebuilt in concrete. The image of wood buildings improved after the Kobe earthquake as they proved their ability to withstand major tremblers. However, the massive tsunami has vividly demonstrated a weakness with wooden structures and the concrete industry will be sure to use this in their lobby against switching to more wood framed construction.

Despite this, wood as a structural material still has a solid future in Japan. High-end homes in Japan are already mainly concrete, but the cost of concrete construction is prohibitive for typical single-family homes or smaller apartments. As for large structures which house people such as seniors that cannot easily evacuate in times of emergencies, there are still many benefits to building in wood and the motivation of the Japanese government to reinvigorate domestic forestry through such projects is unlikely to diminish. Canada now needs to offer its technical expertise to show how such buildings can be constructed to protect residents even in the worst of disasters in order to address safety concerns. In this way, we can make a positive contribution to reconstruction efforts while also ensuring that wood framed construction remains a preferred building method in Japan.

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