The tragic scenes from Syria and Turkey remind us that structural failure can be a greater risk than fire, writes Andrew Mellor

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The very tragic events in Turkey and Syria as a result of the earthquake, remind us that structural defects in a single building can be catastrophic. But when that inherent defect is within many buildings, the risks are much higher, especially when the buildings lie in an earthquake zone.

Building collapse can be immediate when a structural defect leads to failure, which means that those occupying the building at the time have little or no chance of escape. Therefore, structural safety can be a risk which is a greater than fire when it comes to the number of potential fatalities. In Turkey, the political implications of alleged shortcuts taken to speed construction of development in the last ten years will be significant.

The Building Safety Act includes structural failure under the definition of building safety risk. Accountable Persons will therefore be responsible for the structural safety of buildings that they own and manage. The assessment of risk posed by the building structure will be considered in the building Safety Case. But what is it that they will have to assess?

Will it include balconies, balustrade construction and fixings and the fixing of external façade systems?

Is it the primary structure only or will it include secondary structural items? And to what extent and depth of investigation must the assessment include? Will older buildings, or taller buildings require a more rigorous approach and how is this defined? The industry is to some extent experienced in undertaking in-depth fire related risk assessments but there is little wider related experience of structural safety assessments.

The assessment will of course consider the primary structure of the building but what about secondary structural items, and what does secondary items cover? Will it include balconies, balustrade construction and fixings and the fixing of external façade systems?

The government produced a consolidated guidance note on safety, which it subsequently withdrew in January 2022, which included the risk of external wall render systems detaching from high-rise residential buildings and falling to the ground. There have been a number of such instances involving this type of failure on tall buildings around the country to date. Presumably, as this was a safety risk identified by the government, then it will have to be included as part of a Safety Case assessment where a building has a render system installed.

The structural collapse at Ronan Point in 1968 remains as a historical warning to the industry

Greater definition and guidance will be needed as to what should be included in the Safety Case from a structural perspective and how the associated safety checks and assessments should be undertaken. This should include the need to employ structural engineers and their remit will depend on the degree of risk involved. If no guidance is forthcoming, it could be that the requirements are tested by the first Safety Case submissions, expected to be from April 2024.

HSE estimate that the number of buildings with structural defects will be far less than those that have been found to have fire safety risks in the post Grenfell era. However, there are buildings that have had to be decanted as a result of structural safety concerns and there are likely to be more.

The chance of an earthquake in England causing collapse of residential buildings is of course very low but poor design and construction, inadequate oversight during construction and poor maintenance could have led to structural integrity risks in buildings. The structural collapse at Ronan Point in 1968 remains as a historical warning to the industry. There may well be lessons for the UK to learn from the Turkey and Syria disaster – in particular in relation to oversight and approval processes.