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New Zealand Home & Building, October-November 1985

Thinking it Through: A safe life is no life at all

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Thinking it Through: A safe life is no life at all

Knowing how to live with risk is much more useful than knowing how to eliminate it. After all being alive is itself a risk.

Eliminating risk often involves little more than transferring the risk elsewhere. Sometimes we transfer the risk to others and sometimes we simply transfer it to another part of our own lives.

We can, for example, reduce the earthquake risk by demolishing old buildings, but at the same time we increase the risk of a loss of cultural identity. It may be better to die in an earthquake than to live in a world which has no meaning. Indeed we all know people who are dying from a loss of a sense of identity and worth, while very few of us know anyone who has actually died in an earthquake.

The very remoteness of our experience of earthquakes enables us to continue to believe in myths, and also to carry unrecognised risks. New buildings are earthquake resistant, but not earthquake proof. Only the standards have been changed. It remains a matter of debate whether it is better to sail on the Titanic with an inadequate number of lifeboats, or on a less safe vessel with sufficient lifeboats for everyone.

"Safety" is a term which is often used to conceal hidden agendas. We sould be better to talk about "risk management".

Risk management makes it possible to consider who obtains benefits and who carries the corresponding risks. If a plane crash occurs, for example, a distinction needs to be made between people in the plane who choose to take the risks to obtain the benefits of rapid and efficient transportation, and other people who carry the risk of being killed by falling debris as well as having the disadvantage of a plane flying over their otherwise quiet world.

If an LPG tank happens to explode in your car there is a direct relationship between the benefits to you and the result of the risk. On the other hand if an LPG depot happens to explode and kill people who live close by, but who do not use LPG, the situation is very different. The people who make the profit from the depot carry none of the real risk because they live far away from areas where LPG depots are likely to be located.

A fundamental principle of risk management would be the establishment of direct links between cost and benefit. We are all human. We are all more sensitive to the risks we take in our own lives than we are to the risks we generate in the lives of others. We all know the unintentional carelessness which is engendered by insurance policies.

A balance also needs to be established between high risk and sustained risk. We often pass through a situation of high risk to reach a point of relative safety. Setting high standards can create barriers which deny rights of access. "Nursery" situations are needed in our society. A building where a small business or a new industry can be established may have a higher than desirable fire risk, but without the possibility of such spaces there is a risk that no new initiatives would come into being. Dwellings are needed which are a "rite of passage" to better things.

Institutions face an insoluble problem in a world of litigation because they need to protect themselves from risk, but in doing so they inevitably create barriers. The high standard of educational buildings, for example, can increase the cost of education to such an extent that some people simply lose access to further education. No one trips on stairs, but the people who never get the chance to walk on the stairs throw bricks through windows and become a "social problem". Some suggest it is a risk we have to take, and that the answer is to reduce the risk by protecting our windows.

The majority of buildings are now erected for institutional clients, and as a result safe mediocrity is the risk we face.

The growth of institutionalised mediocrity suggests the introduction of different standards for people who are building for themselves. People who are balancing risks in their own lives may choose to spend less on their dwelling, and more on education, food or clothing. They will in time, of course, be able to improve their homes because they will not be crippled by mortgage repayments. We consumers need to be protected from others, but the idea that we need to be protected from ourselves suggests that something is wrong with our development as individuals.

Fortunately we do have some wonderful traditions in New Zealand. We are accustomed to taking risks, and also to taking responsibility for ourselves. We know that buildings, like life, can never be absolutely safe. We climb mountains and sail yachts and most of us survive. We recognise that those who do die have at least touched life.

It would be tragic to die without ever having lived.

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