Does mining for gas cause buildings to collapse?

Words:
Kirsten Hannema

It has in the Netherlands, where Winy Maas, De Toeverlaat and other Dutch architects are repairing widespread damage in Groningen. It’s meant rethinking how buildings are commissioned and learning earthquake-proof design

Buildings being propped up are a familiar sight in the region because of gas drilling.
Buildings being propped up are a familiar sight in the region because of gas drilling. Credit: Kees van der Veen

For half a century the province of Groningen in the north-east of the Netherlands was seen as the gold coast. After the Dutch Petroleum Society, Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM), discovered a huge gas bubble on the territory in 1948, hundreds of billions euros worth of gas was extracted there.

But at the beginning of the 1990s the earthquakes started, caused by prolapses in the ground as a result of the gas extraction. Relatively small at first, they caused cracks in walls and roads, and then their frequency and gravity increased. To date, more than 1,100 earthquakes have been reported, the largest on 16 August 2012 at the village of Huizinge, 18km north east from Groningen. It reached 3.6 on the Richter scale and caused 80,000 notifications of damage. And yet extraction continues.

Gradually Groningen and the surrounding area has become a disaster zone, where farmhouses are propped up with temporary wall bracing and inhabitants can’t sleep for fear of new tremors. For decades, local resistance to the gas extraction wasn’t taken seriously by politicians 235km away in The Hague. But when another heavy quake of 3.4 on the Richter scale hit the village of Zeerijp in January 2018, something had to be done.

After months of haggling between the parties, the economic affairs minister Eric Wiebes announced a new damage protocol that would force a breakthrough in the endless legal procedures being launched in the battle against earthquake damage. One promise was that the gas extraction from the area would be slowed from 20 to 12 billion cubic metres a year, and an end date when the drilling will finish has been set to 2030.

With this, at last, the earthquake-proof reconstruction of buildings and villages has been able to start. Multiple measures are afoot and architects from all over the Netherlands are being recruited to the cause. To help the inhabitants and clients in Groningen, the royal institute of Dutch architects, Branchevereniging Nederlandse Architectenbureaus (BNA), has set up an online ‘Whitebook’ of 50 example projects in the earthquake area that are high quality and sustainable, and a pool of architects for residents and organisations in search of professional help

Map showing the impact of earthquakes in terms of peak ground acceleration in the Groningen region.
Map showing the impact of earthquakes in terms of peak ground acceleration in the Groningen region. Credit: KNMI/vector-i architects

The village of Overschild asked architect Winy Maas from MVRDV to come up with a vision for the restoration of the village, designed in consultation with its inhabitants. Together with the Groningen based urban designer Enno Zuidema (now head of MVRDV’s urban design department) and the local designers collective De Toeverlaat (‘The reliance’), this vision has been elaborated. And the city of Groningen itself hopes to set a new earthquake-proof building standard when its new culture centre, the Groninger Forum, opens its doors this winter.

These are pioneer projects and a positive leap forward for the region’s inhabitants whose lives have been on hold. They create work for architects, but are, essentially, about finding emergency and long-term man-made solutions to a man-made problem. At a time when people in the UK fear that the new government under Boris Johnson will row back on regulations that bring immediate halt to shale gas extraction if tremors of 0.5 on the Richter scale are recorded, they are issues Britain may also need to face. Here too shale gas is being extracted, causing minor earthquakes; there are protests by local residents, calls for new legislation and falling property prices – all while the latest research suggests that the whole strongly contested exercise may only deliver a fraction of the gas promised by fracking firms and government ministers. A 2.9 magnitude quake was recorded near Cuadrilla’s site near Blackpool in August. So, if the worst happens, what can be learnt from Groningen?

First, get the government in charge. In Groningen, thousands of people with damaged houses initially had to negotiate with the petroleum company NAM about whether or not it was earthquake-related and the amount of compensation. This caused a conflict of interests, a lot of irritation and delays. In June minister Wiebes decided to hand over these tasks to the National Coordinator Groningen (NCG), which consists of 10 local municipalities, the province of Groningen and the Dutch government. The NCG now decides which houses need reinforcement and coordinates the rebuilding process as part of village and city renewal plans. Minister for internal affairs Kajsa Ollongren is responsible for the execution, while Wiebes is responsible for safety in the area. The government will pay for the costs. In order to process the 19,000 requests for compensation more quickly, Wiebes has offered a fixed amount of €5,000 to anyone still waiting. This amounts to the average payout per damage report. To date 6,152 damage reports have been sustained, equalling around €32.8 million.

An unsalvageable farmhouse in the Groningen region being demolished because of safety concerns.
An unsalvageable farmhouse in the Groningen region being demolished because of safety concerns. Credit: Kees van der Veen

For some architects working in the region, the earthquakes have created the opportunity to review the area’s built environment as a whole, touching every aspect from demographics to the thermal performance of buildings or removal of asbestos.

Rob Hendriks, co-founder of local design collective De Toeverlaat, thinks the most important thing right now is to acknowledge that the mega-project is ‘more than a technical task’. ‘The spatial consequences of making structures earthquake proof are immense, at the level of buildings as well as the urban scale,’ he says. ‘There lies the opportunity for designers, just because they are capable to connect different aspects.’ Together with his colleague Enno Zuidema, who moved from Rotterdam to Groningen to start an office specialising in ‘shrinkage’ and ageing, they want to link solutions for quake-related issues to other themes that play a major role in this area to improve quality of life.

At Overschild, Zuidema was a moderator of two evenings where residents could express their worries about compensation, mortgages and where they could or could not rebuild. He helped them to set up a Whitebook Overschild, noting that residents want to be involved, but don’t feel equipped to execute plans. His work there has been about creating a vision for the village which bundles together their wishes and ideas and supervising individual building plans.

Through the joint organisation of NCG, De Toeverlaat helped individuals with questions about exchange houses, sustainability and construction systems. Hendriks says: ‘In this way they can make an informed choice of reinforcement, renovation or rebuilding, either with a contractor or the help of an architect. At the same time, we want to forge new collectives. The NAM treats every house as an individual case, which puts social networks under pressure. This is why we proposed to work on collective interests, like working with the same contractor, or living together during the construction.’ From the first 18 houses – one of the four streets in this so-called cross village – 12 inhabitants have chosen De Toeverlaat as their architect. For the renovation of the next 90 houses, the municipality organised a tender, won by De Toeverlaat.

Construction of the new Forum cultural building was halted midway through to make the structure earthquake-proof.
Construction of the new Forum cultural building was halted midway through to make the structure earthquake-proof. Credit: Design NL Architects

Meanwhile, at the village of Krewerd, 15km north-east of Overschild, a rebuilding ‘experiment’ has been set up by the architect Fons Verheijen. He is known for designing the Naturalis museum in Leiden, which was renovated recently and found itself at the centre of a legal case. Verheijen claimed the renovation was an infringement of his creation and eventually settled for €1.5 million. With this money he started a foundation for ‘urgent’ architecture matters. One of the beneficiaries for the fund has become the Groningen earthquake area.

Verheijen wants to empower residents by providing everyone with the assistance of an architect, and wants to encourage experimentation too. ‘My point,’ he explains, ‘is that you should start on a small scale, where you can quickly realise plans to get an idea of what works.’ This is how he came to Krewerd, a village of 85 people. As in Overschild he involved the villagers to create a village vision, which serves as a framework for people to rebuild their houses with help of an architect.

However, the earthquakes haven’t only raised issues about how to reconstruct damaged villages, but also how new structures are built and to what standards. The municipality of Groningen, for example, now realises that new buildings need to be earthquake proof. At an individual level, the city decided to set an example with the Groninger Forum, a cultural megabuilding that will complete in November. Construction of it started in 2008, but after the severe quake in 2012 construction was halted in order to adapt the plan.

Knowledge of earthquake-proof techniques is limited in the Netherlands. ‘Luckily our construction advisor ABT has a sister company in New Zealand,’ explains project architect Pieter Bannenberg from NL Architects. ‘There earthquakes are a fact of life and they could get advice. People should be able to leave the building, which has a theatre hall for 500, safely, but there may be damage.’

The previous design was far from ideal. ‘Usually, you either work with a tree construction in steel, which moves along, or a concrete “bunker” which can take any blow. Our design comprises two concrete cores from which loads of steel has been hung.’ With the help of advanced computer programs ABT manages to calculate where extra steel should be added. ‘In the end you hardly see the adaptations.’

Over recent years several pilot projects for earthquake proof building have also been realised, including a conservatoire in Groningen designed by BDG architecten, which is a ‘seismic’ construction with floors and bearing walls that can move along each other during quakes. The concert halls and practice rooms have been built as insulated boxes. NCG has also set up a programme for the renovation and reconstruction of 102 schools, using the opportunity to incorporate educational renewal and create zero emission (all electric) buildings. The first earthquake proof schools were opened in 2018 in Bedum and Middelstum; the whole project should be completed by 2021.

The flooding disaster that hit the Netherlands in 1953 resulted in the famous Delta Works, which boosted numerous initiatives to rebuild the country’s infrastructure to ensure people would be safe. Do the Groningen earthquakes provide a similar opportunity?

‘I once made the mistake during an information evening with villagers of speaking about how they would build the “house of their dreams”,’ says Hendriks. ‘People got pissed [off] and walked out of the door. But they will get an earthquake-proof and building compliant decree, sustainable and hopefully typical Groningen house. No one is happy about it, but by now they feel we have to drag the best out of this.’


Kirsten Hannema is a freelance architecture critic, writing for, among others, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. She is also editor in chief of the Yearbook Architecture in the Netherlands

  • This Side Up is mainly constructed from timber to allow for movement in the structure.
    This Side Up is mainly constructed from timber to allow for movement in the structure. Credit: Harry Cock
  • This Side Up has been designed as an earthquake-proof house in the new district of Meerstad.
    This Side Up has been designed as an earthquake-proof house in the new district of Meerstad. Credit: Harry Cock
  • The name of the house, This Side Up, refers to the fragile, breakable nature of the setting.
    The name of the house, This Side Up, refers to the fragile, breakable nature of the setting. Credit: Harry Cock
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Case study: This Side Up, Meerstad, the Netherlands, designed by vector-i architects

This Side Up is a 180m2 house for a clinical pathologist and broadcast video editor/teacher in the new district of Meerstad, 7km from the centre of Groningen. The clients approached architect vector-i in 2016. North-east of the city, the location is within the earthquake zone on hazard line 0.17 peak ground acceleration (PGA). PGAs are the amplitude of the largest acceleration recorded during an earthquake. Hazard lines determine the standards designers must adopt, as well as the funds available from NAM towards the additional costs of building because of the earthquake threat.

The refund was calculated as a percentage of the clients’ total budget, resulting in a design based on the two. Traditionally housebuilding in the region was done by piling with masonry on top, but during an earthquake this can cause floors to slide away from walls. Regulations now require movement and flexibility to be designed into the structure.

For This Side Up, timber was the most logical material. But vector-i also had to adhere to Meerstad’s design guide, which predates the earthquakes and is based on a culture of brick. Consequently, the house keeps brick to a minimum ‘solid base’ and maximises wood, creating a ‘flexible top’.

To prioritise movement, vector-i also minimised traditional piling in favour of connecting in different ways – for example, using metal anchor plates at almost every joint between foundation and floors/walls/roofs, resulting in a lightweight, light-footed structure.

There were many complications however. As part of new standards, distances between the nails/screws used for timber frame had to be calculated and proved. Engineers differed on the thickness of the timber board required, so the architect had to amend the technical drawings from 11mm to 18mm. Consultants would not
take responsibility for simple adjustments, causing further delays.

And as more research takes place in the region and more earthquakes happen, the PGAs change and the standards with them, making construction particularly complex and necessitating extra design flexibility.

Ben van der Meer, director, vector-i architects, and Isabelle Priest


 

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