Wired for Stability

Mud brick house in HaitiFollowing the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Dominic Dowling’s work strengthening mud-brick houses has been given a renewed boost, potentially saving thousands of lives.

Award-winning civil and environmental engineer Dominic Dowling is a selfconfessed ‘Lego kid’ who loves getting his hands dirty.

“I guess I’ve always loved problem solving and being practical,” 33 year-old Dowling says. And his now world-famous invention, QuakeSafe Adobe, is nothing if not practical.

This earthquake-safe construction system for adobe houses is the result of more than eight years of research in Australia, Central America and Asia, most of which he spent up to his armpits in mud. Adobe bricks consist of sun-baked mud that may have straw, or occasionally sand, added.

Dowling’s revolutionary system uses cheap and readily available resources – string, bamboo and wire – to reinforce mud brick houses in earthquake-prone areas.

During construction, string or wire is placed in between the layers of mud brick and the ends are then tied to vertical bamboo poles on the exterior of the wall. This reinforcement can also be retrofitted to existing buildings. When an earthquake strikes, the frame acts as a net, holding the bricks together. Although the buildings may still be damaged in a strong quake, they are left more or less intact, giving residents precious time to escape.

This simple reinforcement could help a third of the world’s population who live in mud brick houses. At the moment, when a serious quake hits, thousands of people can die because the houses they live in are poorly built and collapse with little warning. In Haiti, where hundreds of thousands of people died following the earthquake that struck on 12 January, the simple concrete structures that dominated the landscape crumpled in seconds under the strain. Many inhabitants had no warning and, therefore, no time to escape.

“If we extend the time it takes for a house to collapse, even if that structure is damaged, we call that a success,” Dowling explains.

His invention was inspired by firsthand experiences of the devastating effects of the January 2001 earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale that rocked El Salvador. At the time, Dowling was doing community development work in Nicaragua.

When the earthquake struck in El Salvador, he literally downed tools and jumped on a bus.

“The four months I spent in El Salvador really exposed me to the extent of the destruction and the hopelessness of the whole situation,” Dowling says, whose time in that country, working with the Irish humanitarian agency GOAL, formed part of the industry experience required to complete his Bachelor of Engineering in Civil and Environmental Engineering at UTS.

A second major earthquake that struck exactly one month later proved even more confronting. “We went into some villages where 95 per cent of the houses were rubble.”

The experience propelled him into further studies as he worked hard to develop sustainable earthquakesafe adobe housing. He lined up UTS Professor Bijan Samali, one of the world’s leading earthquake engineering authorities, as his PhD supervisor: “Professor Samali has an innate sense of responsibility and commitment to these kinds of projects, so there was a very natural fit,” says Dowling.

Together, they tested 11 different reinforcing systems on the innovative ‘shake table’ at UTS (a $1 million apparatus that can be programmed to simulate earthquakes) before settling on Dowling’s life-saving bamboo, string and wire combination.

While an unreinforced structure would be destroyed at 75 per cent intensity of a 7.7 Richter scale earthquake, Dowling’s final prototype withstood a series of simulated earthquakes representing the 75, 100 and 125 per cent intensity of the earthquake which destroyed more than 110,000 adobe brick houses in El Salvador in 2001.

Professor Samali recalls the years spent watching Dowling test model after model. “Working with Dom during his PhD was one of the highlights of my career as an academic,” says Samali. “He approached his work with commitment, attention to details, vigour and passion.” Dowling’s vital research landed him the 2005 NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Award from the Australian Institute of Policy & Science, the Powerhouse Museum’s 2006 Powerhouse Wizard award, a feature in Sydney Design ’07 and a finalist placing on ABC TV’s New Inventors program.

But what was it that transformed this mud pie-loving kid into a man passionate about sustainable and durable construction?

“I think it was the strong sense of social justice that I inherited from my parents. I always knew that the most rewarding career would be one that involved giving back to the community, wherever that community might be,” says Dowling. “I think we all have a responsibility to work towards a better, safer and healthier society.”

This ideology led him to briefly entertain the idea of a career in medicine while he was in high school. Instead, as he put it, he became “a doctor of mud, rather than a doctor of blood”.

“I always saw that my Dad gained a lot of satisfaction from the work he did [as a civil engineer for the RTA],” Dowling says, whose two siblings are also practising engineers. “In the end, engineering seemed like the best fit for me.”

Dowling, who completed his PhD in 2006, is now working as an environmental consultant and continues to work with QuakeSafe Adobe in his spare time.

“My dream would be that in 50 years everyone in El Salvador, Haiti, Peru, Afghanistan, or wherever, is building in this way, but there’s a lot more work to be done to get there.”

Words: Caroline Ball
Photography: Mark Cini