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Will Türkiye earthquakes renew interest in Ottoman-era wooden housing?

‘Durable traditional architecture’ might sound like an oxymoron. But the February 6 earthquakes that left thousands of modern buildings in Türkiye and Syria in heaps of mangled steel and concrete have put the spotlight back on wood-based dwellings.

Architects and building experts say that wood could be the primary building block for earthquake-resistant houses in an area lying directly atop one of the most active seismic zones in the world.

And though this would mean cutting trees, they say, it can be achieved without harming the environment.

The powerful earthquakes ravaged entire towns and reduced city blocks to rubble, leaving populations both physically and emotionally devastated. Most were contemporary dwellings made of steel-reinforced concrete, which has become ubiquitous in the modern construction industry. Despite the expected resilience of such a pairing, how and why did they prove so fragile? 

“Reinforced concrete is overwhelmingly used in contemporary construction techniques. However, the perception that this material will not suffer heavy damage is completely wrong,” architect and restorator Seda Ozen Bilgili tells TRT World.

“Wood, which is an important alternative, was the material of the past as well as the future.” 

Today, many engineers and architects in Türkiye acknowledge that if traditional wooden-framed buildings are appropriately installed, they may fully serve the purpose of durability.

Dogan Kuban, one of the most prominent Turkish academics in the history of architecture, has emphasised in his book ‘Turkish hayatlı house’ – in which he examines traditional quake-proof structures in detail – that wooden architecture dates back thousands of years and is the cultural heritage of the people living in Anatolia for centuries.

According to historical records, several major earthquakes occurred in the Ottoman Empire in the later periods, and the wooden-framed structures held up admirably.

“Interestingly enough, the Ottomans realised the necessity of the industrial forest at the very beginning of the 19th century, and the Ottoman Steam Timber and Joinery Factory was put into operation and was used extensively for production of prefabricated housing units,” says Bilgili.

One of the greatest achievements of the factory was the Buyukada Greek Orphanage, built in 1898. Considered the largest wooden building in Europe, the orphanage remained standing even after back-to-back devastating earthquakes hit Türkiye in 1999. 

Eco-friendly materials

In addition to its superior durability and resilience, traditional wooden construction also “holds up” environmentally.

Bilgili claims that the Ottoman practice of traditional construction serves as a worthy model even today and that all kinds of regulations to be implemented by modern states in order to preserve the ecological balance may be more advantageous. 

“The antidote to this problem is to select natural structures, adaptable to nature and reusable multiple times. Because, as in the case of the recent earthquakes in Türkiye, only a small fraction of the wastes produced by the construction materials known as reinforced concrete can be recycled,” she says.

In addition to being a threat to the environment, the contaminants in the debris are detrimental to human health, both directly and indirectly. “While removing debris from the earthquake location, asbestos, a chemical that can be discharged into the air, can be exceedingly dangerous (for humans). In addition, there is a significant risk that they will eventually mix with groundwater and drinking water,” she adds.

In combating global climate change, forests play a significant role in storing carbon. However, trees’ ability to absorb carbon declines as they age and reach a mature state. They eventually release more carbon than they store, says Turker Dundar, Professor of Forest Industry Engineering at Istanbul University.

“When we cut down the old trees and replace them with new ones, we restart the carbon sink. In other words, when the wood is transformed into structural and industrial products, it can be made to retain carbon rather than release it into the environment. Hence, when trees are ripe for harvest, they must be properly felled within the bounds of the relevant laws,” he adds.

Several organisations and industries on a global scale have initiated significant projects to raise awareness for the transformative power of wooden structures and put a spotlight on the versatility of timber building systems.

During a virtual conference organised by the Wood Sector Alliance for the European Commission’s New European Bauhaus in 2021, it aimed to demonstrate wood’s sustainability as a key driver in construction and living for a carbon-neutral society. 

Prof. Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, a founding member of the Potsdam-Institute for Climate Impact Research, acknowledged that forests and wood products, as the primary natural resource that can efficiently absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the built environment, offer simple but revolutionary solutions.

“We need to create an alternative carbon sink, and wood construction is the perfect answer. We can turn timber into construction material and recycle most of the wood in the built environment. You have cascade utilisation and immediately replant the trees that you have taken away and even increase the forest area, then you have what I call the ‘Forestry-Construction Pump,” he had said then. 

Ahmet Turer, a professor of civil engineering at the Middle East Technical University in Türkiye, emphasises that the question “why wood?” has several answers, alongside its ecological benefits.

“Since it is much lighter and more durable than concrete, it can be used in highrise buildings. For example, it was tested with a ten-story CLT (cross-laminated timber) building in Japan, and no matter what magnitude of tremor they inflicted, they failed to demolish it,” he says.

Furthermore, according to Turer, another feature of wood that makes it durable and preferable in the construction industry is its heat resistance.

He says that wood provides a substantial degree of fire endurance as it burns from the outside and the inner part not exposed to fire could remain as strong as they were before the fire. 

“Steel, on the contrary, is an excellent heat-conducting material,” he says, adding that if the temperature reaches a thousand degrees, it loses its load-bearing capacity.

Future cities

Pointing to many contemporary examples of earthquake-resistant traditional wooden structures, like universities and public buildings, Bilgili underlines that the traditional constructions, already a part of Turkish cultural heritage, may be easily continued in the country as well.

“The ‘Simone de Beauvoir School’ was built to produce 50 percent of public buildings from natural materials in France. Also, the Municipality of Amsterdam has committed to making 20 percent of the total construction from wood material until 2025 to reduce the carbon emissions of the construction sector. In addition, the 85.4-meter wooden building Mjosa Lake Tower was built in Norway,” she adds.

In rural areas of cities, for example, in the villages of Beykoz, Sile and Catalca in Istanbul, traditional building materials may also be required to conserve the natural environment. In areas such as Besiktas, Sariyer, Uskudar and Beykoz, there are wooden structures till today, yet they are not considered odd, Bilgili says.

“The architectural education that our people and citizens will get in primary school will gradually shape their preferences and lifestyles,” she says.

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