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The Martin Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies

- the research arm of the Department of Architecture

Studying at Cambridge


Cambridge University Centre for Risk in the Built Environment (CURBE)
Director - Dr Emily So

Short Summary

Since its establishment in 1997, the Cambridge University Centre for Risk in the Built Environment (CURBE) group have been involved in identifying, monitoring and assessing risk in the built environment under the auspices of national, European and global initiatives.  Mainly concentrating on natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and tsunamis, the research studies are unique in bringing together close cooperation between architects, engineers, earth scientists and public health specialists.  CURBE links the skills and expertise from these distinct disciplines to understand and resolve disaster and risk issues, particularly related to reducing detrimental impacts of disasters and vulnerability of the built environment. 

Most recently, members of CURBE were asked to contribute to the UK Government’s series of foresight reports in answer to Lord Ashdown’s calls for a step change in the way the international humanitarian system responds to disasters.  This report falls under work package 9 on “Improving Future Disaster Anticipation and Resilience”.  CURBE’s current and former directors, Dr Emily So and Professor Robin Spence were responsible for reporting on institutional resilience to earthquake from three recent case studies and recommending research and political actions to improve resilience.

The UK’s earthquake engineering field investigations team, EEFIT was cofounded by the director of CURBE and the group’s research has been integrated in US government earthquake notification programs; used to formulate post-disasters protocols at the World Bank; adopted in the planning for the Vesuvius Emergency Plan by the Italian Government; and adopted in global loss estimation models.

Underpinning Research

Work on post-disaster damage assessment in the Department of Architecture at Cambridge University has been continuing for nearly 25 years.  During this time, staff and researchers of CURBE have been involved in 15 separate EEFIT post-earthquake reconnaissance missions, supported by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), each of which has resulted in a report which has been widely disseminated in industry and used by national civil protection agencies.  In the Architecture Department, the assembled damage data are key to developing predictive tools and loss estimation methods, in a series of projects supported both by the EPSRC (Ground Motion and Earthquake Damage for Low Strength Masonry Buildings, 1988-90, Reducing Human Casualties in Building Collapse, 1990-92) and by the EU (Earthquake Protection for Historic Town Centres and Seismic Protection of Hospitals, 1994-96).  These predictive tools have been disseminated and used for loss estimation purposes by urban authorities (e.g. in Bursa, Turkey and Mexico City) and by insurance and reinsurance companies. There has been collaboration with the insurance industry in the development of computerised loss modelling software. Industrial clients and collaborators include insurance broking companies Willis, Sedgwick Re, Benfield Greig and the New Zealand Accident Compensation Commission

Two other significant areas of current earthquake research include work on the use of remote-sensing for damage assessments which has been in progress since 2002, and work on casualty estimation from earthquakes. 

An EPSRC-supported pilot project (2002) on the use of remote sensing for post-earthquake damage assessment using images from the Gujarat earthquake was concluded, and a follow-up project “Rapid damage mapping to support post-disaster recovery” was completed in 2003. Since 2005, two studies on human responses to disaster have been conducted “Eyewitness accounts of the South Asian Tsunami” (2005) and “Building Damage and Survivor Needs following the Pakistan Earthquake” (2005-2006). Several studies on shelter needs of disaster survivors have also been carried out, supported both by the DFID and by EPSRC, through the Shelter Centre, based at the Martin Centre.  Most recently, CURBE has been exploring ways of using remote sensing to monitor recovery (2009-2012).  Working closely with the British Red Cross, the team used their expertise in interpretation of aerial and satellite imagery, lidar and pictometry datasets to help manage their operations in Haiti.  Members of CURBE were also part of Operation GeoCAN, which stands for Global Earth Observation - Catastrophe Assessment Network, in estimating and classifying building damage based on high resolution aerial imagery in areas severely affected by the earthquakes, including Port-au-Prince in Haiti and Christchurch, New Zealand (2010-2011).

Following on from work sponsored by the LessLoss project, an (Eu8million) EU funded Integrated Project focussing on risk mitigation for earthquakes and landslides (2005), research projects funded by the EPSRC have contributed to capturing casualty data from survivors of earthquakes in Pakistan, Indonesia and Peru (2005-2008).  These data and loss models now contribute to the US Geological Survey PAGER program and are used in the Global Earthquake Model.  The 2nd International workshop on disaster casualties was organised by CURBE in 2008, papers from this meeting are published in a book entitled, Human Casualties in Earthquakes: Progress in Modelling and Mitigation (Springer, 2011), highlighting current research and the need for more concerted efforts in examining human losses.

The group have also been involved in three important European volcano projects, namely  European Laboratory Volcanoes Project (1994-1996),Human and Structural Vulnerability of Vesuvius (1998-2000), supported by the EC Environment and Climate Programme and the Explosive Eruption Risk and Decision Support for EU Populations Threatened by Volcanoes, EXPLORIS, funded by the European Union’s research programme Energy Environment and Sustainable Development. (2002-2006).

Within the UK, a project “Coastal Settlements at Risk” supported by the Halifax General Insurance Services was conducted in 1999-2002.  This was followed by a major scientific meeting on coastal storm surge “The Big Flood” at the Royal Society in May 2003, recalling the 1953 east coast storm surge event, and examining the current state of coastal protection both in the UK and the Netherlands.  Proceedings of this meeting were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Volume 363, No 1831).  Coastal flooding currently features as one of four highest priority risks in the Cabinet Office’s National Risk Register (2012). 

The main contributions and impacts CURBE have made to national and global agencies and enterprises in the last 15 years are described in the sections below:


Following EPSRC funding of the 1980 Karakoram Project, EEFIT the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team, was founded in 1982 by Professor Robin Spence (as UL in the Department of Architecture) and Edmund Booth (then of Ove Arup and Partners), as a collaboration between Universities and the Engineering professions to conduct post-earthquake reconnaissance missions. Its aims have been both to develop new understanding of earthquake impacts and to provide training for team members in earthquake field conditions. Over 25 years EEFIT has conducted more than 30 field missions to all the important earthquakes during that time. The Departments of Architecture and Engineering at Cambridge have been participants in most of these missions along with more than 100 individual engineers, 50% of them from industry, 50% from Universities. EEFIT mission reports have been widely circulated internationally, and are acknowledged to have helped formulate the agenda for earthquake engineering research in the UK, advance design practices in the industry, and raise the international profile of earthquake engineering in the UK (

European Association of Earthquake Engineering

In 2002, Professor Robin Spence was elected President of the European Association of Earthquake Engineering for a four years term (followed by a four year term as Vice President until 2010). The role has a high profile in an organisation which aims to promote improved communication, understanding and implementation of earthquake risk reduction in the 32 member countries of the Association.  In this capacity Professor Robin Spence was the principal author of the 2004 strategy document Earthquake Risk Mitigation in Europe including a proposed Research Strategy for the EU, which strongly influenced the spending priorities for the EUs Eu50m earthquake risk research programme under FP7. The strategy document was also presented at a 2007 meeting for MEPs at the European Parliament with some subsequent impacts for EU Regional Policy. (

GEM (The Global Earthquake Model)

GEM is a worldwide public-private partnership of the insurance industry, national governments and private companies to develop a set of tools for the evaluation of earthquake risks for at-risk cities, businesses or individuals.  Launched in 2009, and with funding of Eu20million, the development of these tools is now well advanced, with buy-in from more than 10 national governments including the UK. Robin Spence was a member of the Scientific Board of GEM (2009-2011) and hosted the meeting which defined the Research Agenda for the (Eu4.5m) Risk Components of GEM.  Dr Emily So, while at USGS, formulated the research programme for the GEM Earthquake Consequences database, and Dr Keiko Saito was involved in formulating the research programme for the Inventory Data Capture Tools project (

US Geological Survey (PAGER)

The PAGER (Prompt Alerts for Global Earthquake Response) group of the US Geological Survey has been developing a tool for rapid (with 30 minutes of the earthquake’s occurrence) assessment and dissemination of the probable losses and casualties from earthquakes worldwide. Based on her PhD on Assessment of Human Casualties for Earthquake Loss Estimation, Dr Emily So was awarded a 2-year Mendenhall Fellowship at USGS (2009-2011) to work with the PAGER team on the human casualty assessment element of the PAGER model. Since 2010 economic losses and estimated casualties have been an element of the standard alerts issued by USGS. (

Willis Research Network

The Willis Research Network (WRN) promotes developments in science of extreme events through collaboration between universities, the insurance industry and other organisations. There are now more than 40 research institutions worldwide in the network. The Department of Architecture has been involved in WRN since its inception in 2008, with Dr Keiko Saito as Willis Research Network Fellow within the Department (2007-2010). Her work has helped to develop tools for post-earthquake damage assessment and creating inventory data which are finding increasing application in the insurance industry (

World Bank (GFDRR)

The post-earthquake damage assessment tools using satellite imagery developed by Dr Keiko Saito in her PhD and in subsequent EPSRC –funded projects have been applied over the last two years by the World Bank in its Post-Disaster Needs Assessments for the Haiti earthquake and for the Pakistan Floods;  in 2011 she worked with the Bank, the EU and the UN to develop new protocols for joint work in post-disaster situations, and has now joined the World Bank’s GFDRR team to work more closely with them in implementing this work. (

References to the research                                                  

  1. Baxter, P., B. Lee, T. Wyatt, and R.      Spence, 2001. “Windstorms and Climate Change”, pp 155-176, in Health      Effects of Climate Change in the UK – an Expert Review, Department of      Health, London.
  2. Coburn, A.  and R. Spence, 2002. Earthquake      Protection (2nd edition), Wiley, ISBN 0-471-49614-6    
  3. Spence, R, Brichieri-Colombi, N.,      Holdsworth, F., Baxter, P. and Zuccaro, G., 2004. “Vesuvius: building      vulnerability and human casualty estimation for a pyroclastic flow”      Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, ISSN 0377-0273.
  4. Spence      R, 2007 “Saving lives in earthquakes: successes and failures in seismic      protection since 1960” Bulletin of      Earthquake Engineering, Springer,      5/2, May 2007, 139-251 ISSN:1570-761X
  5. Spence,      R., Kelman, I., Brown, A., Toyos, G., Purser, D. and Baxter, P., 2007.      “Residential building and occupant vulnerability to pyroclastic density      currents in explosive eruptions”, Natural Hazards and Earth Science      Systems Vol 7 pp 219-230
  6. Spence,      R., Palmer, J., Petal, M., Kelman, I. and Saito, K., 2007.  “ Analysing eyewitness reports of the      2004 Asian tsunami” Maritime Engineering, Vol 160, June 2007, ME2,      pp75-85 (DOI 101680/maen2007.160.2.75)
  7. Spence, R. and Saito, K. 2004. “Use of      remote sensing for post-disaster damage assessment: the Bhuj earthquake of      26.1.01”  20 pages, Earthquake      Spectra ISSN: 8755-2930.
  8. Spence, R. and Kelman, I., 2004. An      Overview of Flood Actions on Buildings, Engineering Geology, 73, pp      297-309.
  9. Spence, R., 2004. “.Strengthening School      Buildings to Resist Earthquakes: Progress in European Countries” in      (Yelland and Tucker, eds), Keeping Schools Safe in Earthquakes, OECD,      Programme for Educational Buildings, 217-228, ISBN: 92-64-10669-4
  10. Saito, K., Spence, R. and Foley, T.,      2005. “Visual Damage Assessment Using High-Resolution Satellite Images      Following the 2003 Bam Iran Earthquake, Earthquake Spectra, Special Issue      1, Vol 21, pp309-318.
  11. Baxter, P., Cole, P., Spence, R., Neri,      A., Zuccaro, G. and Boyle, R., 2005. “The Impacts of Pyroclastic Surges on      Buildings at the Eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano, Montserrat”,      Bulletin of Volcanology 67: 292-313, Springer-Verlag
  12. Spence, R., Kelman, I., Petrazzuoli S.      and Zuccaro, G., 2005. “ Residential Buildings and Occupant Vulnerability      to Tephra Fall”, Natural Hazards and Earth Systems, 5, pp 1-18, European      Geosciences Union
  13. Taucer, F., Alarcon J. and So, E., 2009.      “2007 August 15 Magnitude 7.9 Earthquake near the Coast of Central Peru:      Analysis and Field Report” Bull of Earthquake Engineering, Vol 7(1),      pp1-70.
  14. Spence, R., So, E., Jenny, S., Castella,      H., Ewald, M. and E. Booth, 2008. “The Global Earthquake Vulnerability      Estimation System (GEVES): an approach for earthquake risk assessment for      insurance applications” Bull of      Earthquake Engineering Vol 6 (3) pp 463-483.
  15. So, E., Hunt-Raby, A., Robinson, T.,      Fraser S. and Lloyd, T., 2009 “The South Pacific Islands Earthquake and      Tsunami of 29th September 2009: A Preliminary Report by EEFIT”
  16. Spence, R, So, E. and Scawthorn, C.      (editors), (2011) Human Casualties in Earthquakes: Progress in Modelling      and Mitigation, Springer Science.
  17. Booth,      E., Spence, R. J., Saito, K., Madabushi, S.P.G., Eguchi, R., and Gill, S.      P. D, (2011),      Validating assessments of seismic      damage made from remote sensing, Special Issue on the Haiti Earthquake, Earthquake Spectra, vol      27, issue S1, doi:10.1193/1.3632109
  18. Saito, K., Strachan, J., Fewtrell, T., Rosser, N., Jenkins, S., Slingsby, A. and Haynes, K., (2011) Tools for Identifying Hazards, Chapter 63, Routledge Handbook of Natural Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction and Management.
  19. Saito, K., Spence, R. J., (2011), Mapping urban building stocks for vulnerability assessment preliminary results, International Journal of Digital Earth, special issue on validation. Volume 4, Supplement 1, 2011.Brown, D. M., Saito, K., Liu, M., Spence, R. J. S., So, E., and Ramage, M. H., 2011, The use of remote sensing for assessment of post-earthquake damage and recovery: a study following the 12.5.08 Wenchuan earthquake in China, Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering, Springer Netherlands, DOI: 10.1007/s10518-011-9318-7.
  20. Pomonis, A., Saito, K., Sammonds, P., Raby, A., Goda, K., Fraser, S., Chian, S-C., Macabuag, J. and Offord, M., (2011), The Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami of 11th March 2011, Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT), Institution of Structural Engineers, UK. Available from


References to corroborate the contribution, impact or benefit of CURBE

        1. Earthquake      Engineering Field Investigations Team, EEFIT (1982)
        2. U.S.      Geological Survey PAGER (2006-)
        3. R. Spence, “Towers of the future”,      Comment on the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers in Building      Design Sept 21st, 2001.
        4. RS/CURBE  identified as a consultant on the DEFRA/Environment Agency  Guidance Document Flood Risk to People 2006
        5. CURBE      factsheet <Kelman I, 2003 CURBE Fact Sheet 3: UK deaths from the 1953      storm surge, version 4,      10/11/>      identified as a key background document for DEFRA Report Risk Assessment      for Flood, March 2007,      and
        6. Quote from      Robin Spence at Sustainability Northwest Conference on Climate Change      (June 2001)  in developers+are+buildings+for+the+1960s%2C+not+the+21st+Century
        7. EEFIT report on the South Pacific Islands Earthquake and Tsunami mission, led by Dr Emily So is on the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme and the Pacific Disaster Net websites

        8. Samoa News “Preliminary Report from EEFIT Now      Available” published Friday December 25,      2009,
        9. Quote      by Dr Emily So in the NY times on “Powerful Quake and Tsunami Devastate      Northern Japan”, published March 11, 2011
        10. Haiti      and Christchurch earthquakes GEOCAN efforts: (      and
        11. Learning      from Mega Disasters” by the World Bank and the Ministry of Finance of      Japan