Why were Chile's newest buildings prone to destruction?

SANTIAGO, Chile — Jose Luis Leon’s body was the last recovered from the rubble of the brand-new, 15-floor building in downtown Concepcion that crashed to the ground before the three-minute earthquake was even over.

Five years ago, the 26-year-old electrician had moved from Santiago to Concepcion, near the epicenter of February's 8.8-magnitude quake, and last year, when he had saved enough money, made a down payment for a sixth floor apartment in the Alto Rio condominium.

Leon’s crushed body was found in the stairwell between the first and second floors. An investigation is underway to determine why the building, advertised as having “quality construction,” crumbled so quickly.

Leon's father, a construction worker who would not budge from the destroyed building until his son’s body was found, told reporters that even he could tell why: the iron rods used in the building were much thinner than those required, and the pillars were too few and far apart. 

Alto Rio, where eight people died and many more were injured, is better known today as “Ground Zero,” and is the epitome of faulty construction and negligent supervision exposed by the quake.

Despite Chile’s strict construction codes, dozens of new buildings are severely damaged or on the verge of collapsing. Homes and buildings constructed decades ago resisted the quake much better than the modern edifices.

“The damage to pre-1929 constructions was reasonably expectable, as was the damage to adobe constructions in small towns or rural areas. But we are seeing a number of new buildings with serious flaws or on the verge of collapse that have no excuse,” said architect Francis Psenniger, of the University of Chile’s department of construction sciences.

Construction standards in Chile have been improved and updated with each earthquake since the 1929 quake in Talca, a city south of the capital that, like this year, suffered severe destruction. The last time codes were upgraded was after the 7.8-magnitude quake in 1985.

“Chile has been learning as things fall down. For example, the buildings that reinforced their structures after the 1985 earthquake survived this one, but the ones that didn’t, fell,” Psenniger said.

If Chile upgrades its construction standards periodically and its anti-seismic norms are some of the best in the world, why were some of its newest buildings unable to resist the earthquake?

Originally, municipal public works departments were in charge of supervising whether architectural projects complied with building standards. However, the municipalities were stripped of these powers, leaving engineering firms to supervise their own colleagues, under the belief, says Psenniger, that “the construction industry could regulate itself.”

A promotional photo of the Emerald building.
(Courtesy Paz Corp)
The Don Luis and Don Tristan building after the earthquake.
(Benjamin Witte/GlobalPost)
The O’Higgins business tower in Concepcion was in imminent danger of collapsing.
(Courtesy Camsa Constructora e Inmobiliaria)
Mery Rivera and Alejandro Rojas stand in front of Los Cerezos. They are now homeless.
(Pascale Bonnefoy/GlobalPost)

Preliminary inspections of these fragile new buildings are finding flaws in architectural design, soil mechanics and construction materials.

But what often failed as well was the direct supervision of construction, said architect Jose Cerda. He said firms often don't want to spend money for on-site supervisors or hire unqualified people who don't check or control how materials are being used, or even if they are the correct ones.

In districts like Nunoa in Santiago, a massive construction boom over the past few years has changed the urban landscape. With dozens of buildings springing up one next to the other and competing to attract buyers, safety has in some cases been overridden by the need to meet deadlines and lower costs.

“The only way the success of a project is measured is through its profitability,” Psenniger said.

Construction companies, with very few exceptions, have yet to provide a suitable solution for apartment owners and continue to minimize the damage, insisting it is reparable. Some are offering a refund of mortgages already paid in exchange for a commitment that no legal actions will be filed.

The slim, expensive Emerald building, which opened last year and was advertised as “a combination of modern architecture and avant-guard design,” sunk eight inches and started tilting after the earthquake. Its residents and those of the building next door were immediately evacuated. But the president of the Chilean Chamber of Construction, Lorenzo Constans, defended the well-known construction firm Paz Corp: “There are buildings that are tilted. The clearest example is the Tower of Pisa, which has remained standing for centuries,” he said.

In the Maipu district, on the west side of Santiago, Claudia Hardy and her husband were one of the first to buy an apartment in the four-story Don Luis and Don Tristan building complex in 2006. This condominium earned instant fame on the day of the quake. Like Alto Rio in Concepcion, it became the symbol of bad construction in the capital.

One wing is sinking, leaning over and in serious risk of collapsing. The other wing, where Hardy used to live, “is full of cracks, the doors don’t open, the frames are all crooked,” she said. Both buildings were immediately evacuated and residents slept outside for days while they waited for the construction company to show up. To this day, says Hardy, the firm has shown no signs of life, “even though we send them emails every day.”

Everywhere, apartment owners who have been forced to leave their new dwellings are organizing and consulting with attorneys to file class-action suits against the construction companies. The Association of Real Estate Consumers has taken the lead and is currently handling almost 180 cases. Owners are demanding their money back so they can move elsewhere, skeptical of promises that the damages can be repaired and afraid of living in unsafe buildings. Survivors and the families of victims of the Alto Rio condominium in Concepcion are planning to press criminal charges for involuntary manslaughter.

Hundreds of mainly middle-class apartment owners are now homeless and living in limbo.

“Everyone else has gone on with their lives after the earthquake, but we can’t,” said Mery Rivera, who bought an 18-floor apartment with her husband eight months ago in Los Cerezos building in the Nunoa district. Earlier this month, they had to pack their bags and evacuate when it was declared “uninhabitable.” Now, the young couple is living with relatives while their belongings are stored in different places.

“The boiler on the 26th floor broke and flooded all the apartments down to the first floor of one side of the building. Our doors got jammed and we couldn’t get out. I thought I was going to die electrocuted," said an outraged Rivera. "Now the construction company has not offered any solution at all, and on top of that, I have to pay the mortgage so I won’t have problems with my bank."