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Earthquakes and building regulations

Giulia Panedigrano

Most improvements to the way we build have occurred in reaction to fatal tragedies, says Giulia Panedigrano, commended in the 2023 RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition

What lessons can be learnt from the Turkish earthquake?
What lessons can be learnt from the Turkish earthquake? Credit: iStock

Giulia Panedigrano
Part II, University of Strathclyde

On the night of 17 August 1999, an earthquake struck the Gulf of İzmit, in Turkey, causing serious damage to the nearby cities, its ominous sweep reaching as far as Istanbul. This event incited an uncompromising set of anti-seismic regulations, prompted by accusations that the Turkish construction industry had too often prioritised cost over safety. Yet, 24 years later, an all-too-familiar news announcement was broadcast all over the world: tens of thousands of buildings were flattened on the night of 9 February in the aftermath of what is now known as the ‘2023 Turkey-Syria earthquake’.

The affected area (roughly the size of Germany) experienced upwards of 10,000 aftershock waves in the following month: frightening data, which paints a picture of unforgiving nature never failing to humble us humans. It’s an impression that is only partially true. It is not as if we haven’t continually demonstrated our ability to stretch nature well beyond its limits, and we don’t lack the resourcefulness to cope with such events, as a quick look to traditional (and more rudimentary) anti-seismic strategies can prove. It is no secret that the buildings that best performed during the 1999 earthquake were so-called ‘himis’, vernacular Turkish structures made of timber with a simple masonry infill. Their resistance to relentless vibrations amply surpassed that of concrete and steel constructions. And one could look even further back in time – after all, earthquakes are not a 20th century invention.

In fact, it was 1783 when a devastating earthquake flattened thousands of villages in Calabria, the southernmost region of the Italian mainland. Exactly 200 years later, in 1983, University of California professor Stephen Tobriner rehashed the events by describing the sophisticated – yet rarely discussed – anti-seismic construction system that was devised by Italian architects of the time, ‘la casa baraccata’.

The engineered response to the natural disaster, designed to resist the reverberations of brute lateral forces, is not what makes Calabria’s case remarkable. In the history of construction, which is a history almost as long as mankind’s, most improvements to the way we build have occurred in reaction to fatal tragedies. Still, the baraccata system is topical today for two reasons.

While the British Isles haven’t had run-ins with major earthquakes thus far, they have had a fair share of encounters with other types of tragedies

First, because the earthquakes lasted for months, scientists from all over Europe were able to visit the annihilated region and isolate, among the wreckage and rubble, buildings that were still standing from those that had caved in – a unique opportunity to analyse endurance against the backdrop of building failure.

Second, for the first time in modern history, a concerted academic study was commissioned by the Bourbon government which was ruling Calabria at the time. This aimed to record the effects of the earthquake and develop reconstruction guidelines. The study highlighted inefficiencies in the traditional Calabrian building methods, proposed solutions to these problems, and – most importantly – later became policy.

Back then, most Calabrian houses were built of stone or unfired earthen bricks, materials that are not renowned for their anti-seismic properties but were dependable and easy to come by. In fact, they continued to be used well into the 20th century. The study proposed that, to counteract the brittle nature of these materials, which succumbed easily to the horizontal loads they were suddenly asked to carry, buildings were to be conceived as units; each component of this unity linked to the other, and, chiefly, reinforced by diagonal timber bracing.

What’s more, while Giovanni Vivenzio – the royal physician appointed to collate and publish this information – had intended for all new buildings to be built entirely in wood, Francesco La Vega’s guidelines recognised the unlikelihood of this happening, timber being a much more expensive and inaccessible material. His recommendations, in fact, suggested a wooden, cross-braced framework as a support to the traditional stone or earthen infill, and were made compulsory in 1785.

These guidelines represented a levelling device, able to make effective anti-seismic methods accessible to all, and were instrumental in the reconstruction of most Calabrian cities. The rules were admittedly stringent, yet it is conceivable that building inspection was not as easily enforced as it is today – and as we know, building regulation is one thing but building control is another, harder beast to tame.

With at least two successful examples – the himis and the baraccata system – of elementary approaches to anti-seismic construction, it is easy to look at Turkey and Syria with condescension, and feel unruffled or worse, absolved. But while the British Isles haven’t had run-ins with major earthquakes thus far, they have had a fair share of encounters with other types of tragedies – lest we forget Grenfell or, to backtrack even further, the Great Fire of London. Whether deliberate or not, whether directly or indirectly linked to the spread of fire or disease, the neglect of safety has always been embroiled, in the UK, with the history of building standards. It is, too often, the dire sight of a shameful disaster that reprimands us into obedience.

As ‘limiting’ as they might feel, we should recognise that guidelines are there to protect us – not only us users, but also us professionals. Tthe 100-plus Turkish architects, contractors and engineers who have recently been arrested would surely agree. In fact, we ought to welcome any further constraints, as they shield us from what are seemingly ‘invisible’ threats, and signify a larger governmental stride towards prevention.

Some things we cannot control – earthquakes among them – but there are other issues we do have the power to counteract, not least global warming. Building standards that reinforce climate targets and sustainable agendas must be celebrated, not opposed. While historically we have enacted change only after the disaster, today we are obliged to do so pre-emptively. Because this time we might not be able to pick over a ruined landscape and reverse-engineer a solution to our problems as Italian architects did in 1783; there might be nothing left to look at.

Giulia Panedigrano is a Part II student at the University of Strathclyde

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