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Building inspectors fail earthquake test Better qualified engineers could help limit devastation in future Turkish earthquakes.

It is right that cowboy contractors have taken the brunt of the blame for the huge death toll following Turkey's earthquake two weeks ago. After all 95% of the devastation came from their shoddy work. But the clamour for a scapegoat has hidden wider social failings that should have civil engineers shouting with frustration. These failings underline the reason why Chartered engineers are essential in modern society.

North west Turkey's population has boomed in the last decade as cheap labour has flooded the area to man factories run by multinational companies. They had to be housed quickly and cheaply and local contractors have sprung up to meet the demand by building thousands upon thousands of low rise concrete frames.

But these were constructed without regard for quality control. Earthquake damaged structures revealed high water content concrete containing unwashed beach sand, rubbish and shells. Columns had virtually no lateral reinforcement to resist horizontal seismic loads. Vertical main reinforcement running up some columns had been pulled straight out of the concrete without buckling because bars without ribs had been used and had zero grip. Ground floor shear walls had been replaced with glass shop windows turning the bottom floors into 'soft storeys' incapable of taking large horizontal forces.

'If we as a society want to change we have to recognise the nature of the beast,' says Ove Arup's head of seismic engineering Ted Piepenbrock, who has just returned from a week in Turkey. 'The big issue is that there are no minimum standards being enforced so people gravitate to the lowest common denominator. Turkey needs to come to terms with enforcement.'

Contractors and local authority building inspectors are responsible for construction quality control in Turkey and this is where the real failure appears to have occured. Contractors could not be relied on to certify their own work and local government inspectors appeared ill equipped to act competently or independently.

Few inspectors have any engineering qualifications either, let alone an awareness of seismic design requirements. Rumours that many are open to bribery are rife.

'Turkey already has some of the best seismic design codes in the world,' says Piepenbrock. 'Its education is among the best, the engineering is solid and its large infrastructure contractors are solid. The weak link in the chain is cowboy contractors operating in a town with no sheriff. The vast majority of housing is low rise and those contractors are cowboys.'

It is not a new issue. Turkey does not have the equivalent of the Chartered engineer and engineering bodies have been lobbying the government for change for years.

'We have been trying to push for a chartered law to be applied for three or four years but without success,' says president of the Turkish Chamber of Civil Engineers Professor Attila Ansal. 'The government is aware of the issues but unfortunately its priorities have been in other areas. The municipal inspectors should be engineers.'

Ansal also called for a change in the construction laws to ensure that independent control and site investigations are made mandatory. At the moment neither has to be carried out.

'It is more wild west out here than in the UK,' he adds. 'The free enterprise needs more independent control. It underlines the need for Chartered engineers. But we are repeating what we have been saying for years.'

There is perhaps a glimmer of hope. Loss of life does not force change. But financial loss does. The quake has taken its toll on the local working population, severely affecting production capacity. Multinational investors will leave Turkey if they risk losing their workers to another earthquake. If Turkey sees foreign investment leaving the country then perhaps it will see the need for change.


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