The View

Building collapses not unexpected in Turkey-Syria earthquake, UB earthquake engineers say

Buildings that were destroyed or damaged by 1999 earthquake in Kaynasli, Turkey.

In the town of Kaynasli in Düzce Province, Turkey, the apartment building on the left collapsed completely during the 1999 earthquake, and the one on the right failed laterally, causing it to slide into the building in the center. The columns punched through the roof in the building on the left. A red X indicates buildings to be destroyed.


Published February 10, 2023


The images are chilling. One building collapses and the neighboring building, which looks similar, remains standing.

It’s a scene that unfolded in numerous videos captured during the 7.8 magnitude earthquake and subsequent shakes that struck central Türkiye (the nation announced a name change from Turkey last year) and northern Syria earlier this week.

While collapses might appear random, there are most likely underlying causes for this disorienting site, say UB earthquake engineers.

“There are many factors that can contribute to a building collapsing during extreme earthquake shaking, such as that measured close to the epicenters of the Feb. 6 magnitude 7.8 and magnitude 7.5 earthquakes,” says Andrew Whittaker, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. “They can range from shaking intensity and duration, building design and detailing, quality of construction and adherence to construction documents, as well as local soil conditions, construction oversight and structural modifications.”

A building that partially collapsed during the 1999 earthquake in Duzce ,Turkey stands next to an intact building that featured taditional timber frame construction.

As the five-story building (in the background) started to fail, the trailing pillars were pulled from the foundation. Traditional buildings consisting of timber frame with masonry infill (such as the one pictured here) were found standing next to partially collapsed, concrete frame structures. Wooden buildings are generally more capable of withstanding moderate earthquakes than concrete buildings because they bend more easily.

Whittaker and colleague Michael Constantinou visited Türkiye following the 1999 İzmit and Düzce earthquakes to analyze the region’s infrastructure. Later, they helped design and conduct peer reviews of Ataturk International Airport, Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, hospitals and other structures — all of which were equipped with seismic protective systems that were developed with the aid of UB researchers and/or facilities.

While İzmit and Düzce are hundreds of miles from the region devastated earlier this week, there are similarities between all three areas’ building stock, says Constantinou, Samuel P. Capen Professor and SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering.

“In Türkiye, there are many modern buildings, mostly of reinforced concrete, designed per modern building codes, but there are also many older buildings with non-ductile concrete framing. The latter buildings are brittle and are more prone to damage or collapse during significant earthquake shaking,” Constantinou explains.

“Modern reinforced concrete buildings in the United States are designed to suffer damage but not collapse in severe earthquake shaking, and a similar philosophy has been adopted in many other countries. However, modern buildings may collapse if the construction quality is poor, there are design errors, or the shaking is more intense than design basis, or due to a combination of the three,” he says.

He adds: “Based on the published information on the ground-shaking in the epicentral region, the seismic forces would have been very high for stiff structures, and is expected that many reinforced concrete with shear walls and masonry will be more vulnerable, as opposed to modern, flexible steel moment frame buildings or seismically isolated buildings, provided of course that they are properly designed and built.”

Constantinou and Whittaker, both faculty members in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, stress it is far too early to make any definitive determinations as to what caused structures in Türkiye and Syria to collapse, and that the reasons for building-specific failures may never be known because of the scale of the damage.

They add that making each nation’s infrastructure more earthquake-resistant will not be easy, as the cost of retrofitting existing buildings to better withstand powerful earthquakes may cost as much as replacing them.

“Unfortunately, there are no simple, inexpensive solutions,” says Whittaker.