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October 12, 2009

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Raising the roof for Sichuan quake

THE Sichuan earthquake marked an unprecedented degree of openness for external reporting and for external assistance. As a result, many foreign charities and government organizations have been able to help China rebuild the devastated area.
One project involving the Canadian and British Columbian (BC) governments is now bearing fruit.
This September, the Xiang'e Primary School in Dujiangyan of Sichuan Province, one of the hardest-hit areas, opened to 370 children.
The school is one of three facilities built by the Canada-BC Wenchuan Earthquake Reconstruction Project - a collaborative effort between the Canadian and British Columbian governments with donations totalling CDN 8 million (US$7.3 million). Of this figure CDN 5 million was donated by British Columbia.
The school covers 5,370 square meters and has three main buildings, including classrooms, dormitories and cafeteria. The classroom buildings have two stories, with dormitory being three stories.
It was built to replace a school that collapsed on May 12, 2008, killing 317 children and 19 teachers in the 8.0-magnitude quake. More than 5,300 children died, many of them in schools. The toll of dead and missing is about 88,000.
Unlike most of the schools that collapsed during the disaster, the new school is built around a modern wooden frame - a common technology in North America that has been proven to withstand earthquakes far better than less flexible concrete and steel buildings.
The project aims to build two more permanent, wood-frame public facilities using modern wood-frame construction technology.
Construction will begin soon on Mianyang Special Education School for the Disabled and the Beichuan Elderly Care Center in Leigu Town.
The project involves foreign experts and Chinese designers and construction engineers. It not only donates money and resources but also transfers technology and know-how.
The donations include all the materials (Canadian structural lumber) plus foreign advice. For Xiang'e school, Shanghai Tongji University provided the design and it was built by Shanghai Greenland Construction Co.
Jerry Lee Dickison, an American, oversaw the Xiang'e project for 10 months last year.
"Wooden buildings can flex, which makes it much easier to make them earthquake resistant," says Dickison. "The most important thing is how the wood frame fits together - like the outside skin and inside (corrugation) of a cardboard box.
"If that is strong, with the right grading of lumber, then the building can twist and flex just like a box. It's much more complicated to make a concrete and steel structure with the same qualities," he says.
Dickison has worked with wood framing for nearly 50 years, founding Better Homes by Dickison in 1960. During this time he has built wood-frame houses all over the world including in Europe, Mexico and China. His previous China project here was in 2001 as part of the housing push for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
He clearly has passion for wood - a renewable and versatile building material particularly suitable for earthquake-prone areas. The world's second-strongest earthquake to date happened in Alaska in 1964. Measuring magnitude 9.2, it outstripped Sichuan's 8.0-magnitude earthquake, and yet only 134 people died in North America.
Subsequent studies found that wood-frame buildings in the quake area fared considerably better than other forms of construction. According to Dickison, wood was originally used because it was cheaper and locally available, but its flexibility and widespread use helped keep the death toll low: around 115 in Alaska.
In China, Dickison oversaw construction from the beginning to the end, making sure builders adhered strictly to Tongji's designs and that construction was of the highest standard.
According to Dickison the construction of Xiang'e school is of a higher standard than he had ever overseen in America.
At the end of construction, tests were made to ensure the structure would withstand an 8.0-magnitude or stronger earthquake.
Wood structures can be built fast - another bonus for quickly rebuilding a devastated area. According to Dickison, a wood-frame roof takes on average just four days to put up, compared with 64 days for a concrete roof.
The project is being managed by Forestry Innovation Investment (FII) China, a British Columbian government agency that promotes BC wood products and technology internationally.
For FII, the Sichuan projects are also a way to demonstrate wood as a building material, a naturally plentiful resource in forest-covered British Columbia. When combined with carefully controlled reforestation, it can be a renewable resource that is fast and easy to use.
With half the world's construction due to happen in China in the next 25 years, FII suggests wood as a useful supplement in the fight to stay renewable.
Helping China pick up this technology is Dickison's passion, ever since his first visit in 2001.
"I'm at the end of my career and have learned so much by working in different countries. This is a way of giving back to China which needs this technology, and is also now looking for alternatives in green and renewable building materials. What better way than during a disaster," he says.
After a short two-week break, Dickison is set to travel to Sichuan again to oversee the next two projects.
"I was there for the Qingming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day) and the one-year remembrance, there were a lot of strong feelings. But I was very impressed by people's determination and resourcefulness. They're looking forward to the future, and their spirit wasn't crushed," he says.


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