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Roof collapse prompts soul-searching

The twisted wreck of the building after the roof collapsed Keystone

A leading Swiss construction-industry expert tells swissinfo there are lessons to be learnt from the deadly collapse of the roof of an ice rink in Germany.

This content was published on January 5, 2006 - 08:01

Thomas Vogel said that despite stringent building regulations, a similar accident could not be ruled out in Switzerland.

The roof of the ice-skating rink in Bad Reichenhall in southern Germany collapsed on Monday after heavy snowfall. Fifteen people were killed.

About 50 people were inside at the time of the accident, including many children.

Prosecutors have launched an investigation into possible negligence, an automatic step in Germany after a fatal incident.

Vogel, a professor of structural engineering at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, said a key issue in Switzerland was the fact that maintenance of structures is left to the discretion of building owners.

swissinfo: What regulations are in place in the Swiss construction industry to prevent accidents of this kind from happening?

Thomas Vogel: In Switzerland we only have general laws on structures of buildings, and everything else is the responsibility of the Swiss Society of Engineers and Architects. They have codes as in every country, but these codes don't have a legal status in the sense that it is the industry itself rather than the state which issues these regulations.

The regulations in Switzerland are similar to those found [elsewhere in Europe] and they are getting more similar as time goes on. There is a project called Eurocodes on the way and the aim is to unify all the construction codes within Europe.

swissinfo: With all the regulations in place, are you confident that an accident of this scale could not happen in Switzerland?

T.V.: Confident would be too strong a word. I can't say that. There are for sure lessons to be learnt from this accident. This should be the starting point for some assessments of large structures. But it will take a certain amount of time for things to become clear, because now it's a legal matter and only after all this has been cleared up will we know what really happened.

This [sort of accident] shouldn't happen with a structure which is properly designed. The snow loads which occurred in Germany are covered by the Swiss code. What is built into this code is the kind of snow you see once every 50 years.

But the problem here is not so much with the construction but with maintenance, because the responsibility for this lies fully with the owners and there are no regulations as to how often they have to inspect their structures.

swissinfo: You're saying that inspections are not regulated at a federal or cantonal level?

T.V.: No, they are not regulated at all. You won't find rules anywhere on how often you have to inspect buildings you own. And [bear in mind that] although they don't necessarily do so, it can happen that structures weaken over time.

swissinfo: So would you advocate more state intervention?

T.V.: Well, as things stand the responsibility is clear. The owner is responsible. Whenever you start introducing a legal obligation you split the responsibility, which is a problem, because the owner can then rely on the authorities to force him to do something. And that probably doesn't work any better.

swissinfo-interview: Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

The Eurocodes are a pan-European set of structural design codes for building and civil engineering works.
The main aim is to improve the competitiveness of the European construction industry both within and outside the European Union.
The codes are also expected to provide a common understanding about the design of structures between building owners, operators, designers and contractors.

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