Italy struggles to make historic buildings quake-proof | News | DW | 27.08.2016
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Italy struggles to make historic buildings quake-proof

This week's deadly earthquake has reignited a debate over whether Italy could do more to modify its medieval villages. An Italian academic tells DW the government has to act now to prevent more loss of life.

The full or partial-destruction of several central Italian villages in Wednesday's earthquake has once again highlighted the vulnerability of much of the country's archaic building stock.

The quake, which struck at about 3.30am local time (00:30 UTC), killed nearly 300 people, while dozens are still missing, presumed dead among the rubble.

Italy may be Europe's most earthquake-prone country, but many residents of Amatrice and other medieval villages that were ruined when the magnitude 6.0 quake struck, feared that retrofitting their old buildings would be too costly.

"In this area of the country, many of the buildings are very fragile and badly-maintained because they're not used for a large part of the year - only in summer," the London-based structural engineering professor Dina D'Ayala told DW.

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Typical of medieval methods, village homes were routinely built crammed together for financial, climatic and safety reasons. But without regular repairs and conformity to the latest earthquake-proof building codes, they are often too weak to withstand extremely strong seismic activity.

"We have a good understanding of how these closely-connected buildings behave from a seismic point of view; and where strengthening has been undertaken, it has been successful," D'Ayala said, adding that the cost was not prohibitive.

The Italian academic at University College London (UCL) told DW that several other villages in the nearby Umbria region had undergone retrofitting after being hit by at least three major earthquakes over the past four decades, "and they fared well in this earthquake."

Rules have been tightened

Italy's most recent modification of the building code in 2008 made specific provision for the strengthening of existing, and in particular, important historic structures. But smaller buildings are still not covered. D'Ayala blames political and cultural issues for the government not imposing a blanket compliance to the code.

"Because we have earthquakes quite regularly, and minor tremors that don't necessarily make the international news, there is now a huge industry for disaster and reconstruction," she told DW, adding that restoration is far more profitable for large construction companies than retrofitting.

While the public are keen to upgrade the design of their homes - sometimes creating a second floor in buildings with high ceilings - they don't realize the alterations could make their buildings less structurally sound.

Earthquake-retrofitting is a relatively simple procedure, involving putting metal ties between the walls and connecting the floors to the walls, but many property owners are yet to be convinced.

"People don't think that it is important, that this could save their lives. Instead, they say 'I'll invest in a flashy, new TV,'" D'Ayala said.

Then there's a question mark over how some building permits are granted when the renovations are clearly unsafe. Even modern buildings don't always comply with the latest seismic building code.

Old versus new

The alternative to retrofitting may involve abandoning more of Italy's medieval villages altogether. Hundreds of decaying borghi all over the country have already been left to die, despite Italy's reputation for conserving its cultural heritage.

But a growing number of Italians are demanding that archaic buildings make way for modern, earthquake-proof structures to be built on safer land. Following Wednesday's quake, the Italian government has vowed that local officials and not national institutions will decide what is rebuilt and where.

D'Ayala, who previously worked as a seismic engineer to retrofit churches and historic buildings in central Italy, said much of Amatrice had already been rebuilt twice before, following earthquakes in the 16th and 18th centuries.

But despite the public apathy over safety, D'Ayala does sense a shift in attitudes, noting a greater willingness towards compliance since the L'Aquila earthquake in 2009, Italy's deadliest in recent memory.

"A new generation of engineers has been educated to be more aware and more sensitive to the issue. So this is changing the culture, but it takes time." she said.

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