Ankara – (BBC):
The scene of the collapse of newly constructed buildings caused by the two earthquakes that hit Turkey sparked outrage. The BBC examined three of these modern buildings, which have been reduced to rubble, to see what they reveal about the safety of these buildings.
Two large earthquakes – measuring 7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale, flattened buildings of various types and left thousands dead in the regions of southern Turkey and northern Syria.
But the fact that even some modern apartment buildings have collapsed to dust has raised pressing questions about their safety standards.
Modern construction methods must mean that buildings can withstand earthquakes of this magnitude. Regulations following previous disasters in the country were supposed to ensure that these safeguards were built into the building.
In the first of the three collapsed buildings identified by the BBC, images posted on social media showed people screaming and running for protection.
The lower half of an apartment building in Malatya was seen to collapse, leaving what was left of the building slumped over dust and rubble.
The apartments were built last year, and pictures circulated on social media of an advertisement saying that the building was “completed in accordance with the latest legal regulations for earthquakes.”
The advertisement claimed that all designs and materials used were of “high quality”. While the original ad is no longer online, screenshots and videos of the ad circulating on social media match similar ads by the company itself.
Modern construction means that it must have been built according to the latest standards, which were updated in 2018, which require structural structures that are built in earthquake-prone areas to use high-quality cement reinforced with iron bars. Columns and buttresses must be distributed in such a way as to effectively absorb the impact of earthquakes.
However, the BBC has not been able to verify the construction standards used in this building.
The pictures show another newly built residential apartment building in the coastal city of Iskenderun, most of which have been destroyed. The side and rear parts of the 16-storey building have completely collapsed, leaving only one part of the building in place.
The BBC has worked to match the image of the collapsed building with an advertising image published by the construction company, which shows that the building was completed in 2019.
This means that the building had to be built to the latest standards.
The BBC has contacted the company responsible for the construction, but has not received any response.
Another image in Antakya, verified by the BBC, shows the collapse of the larger side of a 9-storey apartment complex, behind a sign bearing the name of the complex: Goglu Bahce.
We found a video of the opening ceremony of the apartment complex, which confirms that the building was completed in November 2019.
In the video clip, Servet Atlas, owner of Seral Construction, says, “The Goglo Bahja City project is particularly distinguished compared to other projects in terms of its location and construction advantages.”
Why this weakness in the application of the law?
Atlas, the owner of the company, said in his response to the BBC: “Among the hundreds of buildings that I built in Hatay (the southern province whose capital is Antakya), unfortunately two buildings collapsed.”
He added that the earthquake was so strong that not a single building was left intact. “We are painfully witnessing how some media organizations falsify awareness and choose scapegoats under the guise of journalistic coverage,” he said.
Although the quakes were powerful, experts say that properly constructed buildings should have been able to withstand and remain standing.
Professor David Alexander, an expert in emergency planning and management at University College London, said: “The maximum intensity of the quake was violent, but not necessarily enough to topple well-constructed buildings.”
He added: “In most places the level of shaking was below the maximum level, and therefore we can conclude from the thousands of buildings that collapsed that almost all of them did not meet any building rules related to earthquakes.
Building regulations are not applied
Building regulations have been tightened following previous disasters, including the 1999 earthquake around the northwestern city of Izmit, which killed 17,000 people.
But the laws, including the most recent standards, introduced in 2018, are not well enforced.
“Part of the problem is that there is little modernization of existing buildings, but also that there is very little application of building standards to new buildings,” says Professor Alexander.
The BBC’s Tom Bateman, speaking to people in the southern city of Adana, said that one of the buildings that collapsed there was damaged 25 years ago in another earthquake, but was left without proper retrofits.
Countries like Japan, where millions of people live in high-density tower blocks despite the country’s history of violent earthquakes, prove how building regulations can help keep people safe in disasters.
Structural safety requirements vary depending on the purpose of the building and how close it is to earthquake-prone areas, from simple stiffeners to motion dampers throughout the building, to placing the entire building on top of a giant shock absorber in order to isolate it from ground movement.
Why is the implementation of the regulations so weak?
But the government in Turkey has granted frequent “construction exemptions” – effectively legal exemptions for payment of certain fees – to buildings built without the required safety certification. These exemptions have been passed since the 1960s (the most recent was in 2018).
Critics have long warned that these exemptions would lead to disaster in the event of a major earthquake.
According to Pelin Pinar Geretlioglu, president of the Federation of Turkish Chambers of Engineers and the Chamber of Architects, one of the city planners in Istanbul, as many as 75,000 buildings located across the earthquake-affected area in southern Turkey have been granted construction exemptions.
And just a few days before the latest disaster, Turkish media reported that a new draft law awaiting parliamentary approval would grant a new exemption for new construction.
Geologist Jalal Senghor said earlier this year that passing such construction exemptions in a country riven by fault lines amounted to a “crime”.
And after a deadly earthquake hit the western province of Izmir in 2020, BBC Turkish found that 672,000 buildings in Izmir benefited from the latest construction exemption.
This same report quoted the Ministry of Environment and Urban Development as saying that more than 50 percent of buildings in Turkey in 2018 – equivalent to about 13 million buildings – were constructed in violation of regulations.
When asked about construction standards in the aftermath of the most recent earthquakes, the Ministry of Environment and Urban Development said, “No building constructed by our department has collapsed. Damage assessment studies are continuing rapidly in the field.”
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