When a historic earthquake struck Morocco in September, Ahmed Aazab tightly hugged his wife and four children as their home’s brick walls tumbled around them.
The roof collapsed, shattering clay pots in the kitchen and trapping picture frames and homework assignments beneath rubble. When the ground finally stopped shaking, the construction worker shepherded his five loved ones to a park. Then he rescued his father, mother and aunt, who were trapped in his childhood home nearby.
For centuries, families in towns like Moulay Brahim in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains constructed their homes of stone and bricks, which they made by tightly ramming handfuls of muddy earth into molds.
Now they face the daunting task of rebuilding from the quake and villagers and architects are debating just how.
From Mexico to Hawaii, the question of rebuilding communities without changing them for the worse arises in the aftermath of virtually all-natural disasters. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI’s cabinet pledged in a statement the week after the quake to rebuild “in harmony with heritage and architectural features.”
More than 3,000 people died in September’s earthquake in Morocco, and some 1,000 villages were damaged. The country plans to spend $11.7 billion on post-earthquake reconstruction over the next five years - equivalent to roughly 8.5 per cent of its annual GDP. Morocco plans to allocate residents cash relief for basic necessities, with an additional $13,600 to rebuild households that were completely destroyed and $7,800 to those that were partially destroyed.
Because of the number of earthquakes in Morocco, there’s widespread agreement among villagers and architects that safety should be a top priority. That’s created a drive for modern building materials and an ambivalence toward the government’s stated commitment to rebuild in line with Morocco’s cultural and architectural heritage.
In some places, local officials awaiting word from higher authorities have stopped those who have tried to start building. That’s sowed resentment as the weather grows colder, laid-off miner Ait Brahim Brahim said in Anerni, a pastoral mountainside village where 36 people died.
Many say they hope to build with the concrete and cinderblocks commonly used in larger Moroccan cities, rather than the traditional earthen bricks they suspect may have compounded their misfortune.
“Everyone goes for modern. The traditional ways, no one cares about it,” Ait Brahim said.
But a subset of architects and engineers is pushing back against the idea that bricks made from earth are more vulnerable to damage.
Mohammed Hamdouni Alami, a professor at Rabat’s National School of Architecture, said that the idea that newer materials like concrete are signs of higher social class has taken hold as parts of Morocco experienced rapid development.
“People see that the government is building all over the country using concrete and think it’s because it’s better and safer. They ask, ‘Why should we build with materials that are for the poor, that are unsafe and primitive?” he said.
But Hamdouni Alami said that bricks of earth, often called adobe in Spain and the Americas, have long been used in wealthier earthquake-prone regions like California. Some of Morocco’s most famous buildings constructed with them - including Marrakech’s 16th Century El Badi Palace - have survived the test of time.
“It’s not an issue of materials, it’s an issue of techniques,” he said.
Kit Miyamoto, a Japanese-American structural engineer, led a team that met with masons and surveyed damage after the earthquake and reached a similar conclusion. His team’s report said it found “no significant difference in the seismic performance of either traditional or modern construction systems.” It concluded that poorly constructed homes of a combination of concrete and earthen materials fared worst in the earthquake.
“A common belief in many post-earthquake affected communities worldwide is that old traditional construction systems must be ‘bad and weak,’ while new modern techniques such as steel and concrete are inherently ‘better,’” they wrote in their October report. “Poor construction quality is the primary cause of failure, not modern versus traditional material systems.”
Miyamoto said he hopes that Morocco rebuilds using affordable materials that residents will be able to repair. If the government merely rebuilds using more costly concrete, he said, he worries about residents’ future ability to make small repairs to maintain seismic safety.
His team’s recommendations included that rebuilding adhere to a code with new seismic safety requirements added in 2011, seven years after a violent earthquake shook the country’s north.
The code includes sections about earthen materials, foundations, building reinforcement and the ideal space between bricks. It restricted the number of floors that could be built in earthquake-prone areas and prohibited the use of mud bricks on “soft ground.”
However, the extent of its implementation remains limited - a problem that many have blamed for damage in cities like Casablanca and rural parts of the country hit by the earthquake. There, many walls - whether made of concrete or earthen bricks - lacked adequate foundations.
“The problem isn’t the building code, it’s that it’s not in use,” Miyamoto said.