Why are buildings collapsing?

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February 2014 Issue - cover story

The increasing number of buildings collapsing while under construction or soon after has reached alarming proportions and something urgently needs to be done

Africa’s impressive growth rate even in the shadow of a gloomy global environment has spurred the development of new buildings, apartments and shopping malls to cater for the needs of an expanding middle class and an influx of businesses wanting to setup shop in order to tap into this growing market. But even as demand for building services has risen the quality of the workmanship has begun to leave a lot to be desired resulting in several reports of buildings collapsing.

All too frequently there have been reports in the media of collapsed buildings caused by under designing in addition to bad workmanship and use of substandard building materials. This amongst other reasons to be discussed here has led to loss of life and limb not to mention the risk of financial ruin. In Kenya for instance the construction sector has piled up Ksh20 billion (US$235million) in losses due to collapsed infrastructure according to the National Construction Authority, all as a result of poor regulation.

In 2013 alone, news reports of buildings collapsing claimed lives of more than 60 people across Africa. January 2013 saw 5 people lose their lives and scores of others injured in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest town. At the end of March, a building under construction collapsed in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, claiming more than 35 lives. In May, 4 people lost their lives when a building under construction in Nyagatare, some 100 km northeast of the Rwandan capital Kigali collapsed. In July, 8 people died after a two-storey commercial building collapsed in Uganda’s capital Kampala.

In November, at least 6 people died when a four-storey building they were building collapsed in Nigeria’s most populous city Lagos. The West African nation is notorious for building collapses and dozens of people have lost their lives in the past. The most recent incident reported took place in November 2013 in South Africa, a country with a relatively safe record of building collapse. A roof of a three-storey shopping mall under construction collapsed killing 2 people and injuring several others in Tongaat near the eastern coastal city of Durban. These tragic incidences tell of an industry in dire need of reform.

Construction Review interviewed various experts in the building and construction industry to seek their opinion on the above state of affairs and various issues were highlighted as the key reasons for this.

Building by-laws

A laxity in the manner in which regulators enforce building by-laws has been identified as a major contributor to collapsing building phenomena and even when those responsible for flouting the laws are prosecuted it is apparent that they do not face stiff enough sentences that would act as a deterrent. In Nigeria, Engineer Mustafa Shehu, the former President of Nigerian Society of Engineers, urges the government to live up to its responsibility by penalizing any person or group that acts contrary to the law in the construction industry. Architect Ibrahim Haruna, the former president of the Nigeria Institute of Architects (NIA) also agreed with these sentiments.

Public awareness

The public has also been blamed for going for the cheap option. This leads to hiring of “Quarks” who end up delivering shoddy and unfit buildings
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Architect Ibrahim Haruna, the former president of the Nigeria Institute of Architects (NIA) sees it as being a situation where everybody ascribes on to himself the knowledge of construction

Speaking to Construction Review, André Mellet (PrArch) of Mellet & Human Architects says, clients and the public should be educated that money spent on using the services of experienced professionals is to their advantage and can avoid unnecessary and costly expenditure that can occur in the event of building failure. He further calls on the architects to take the lead here and educate their clients that they have to appoint suitable professionals.

Mr. Geoff French, the former president of International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC), concurs and notes that the important role of the consulting engineer is still poorly understood resulting in selection processes dominated by price rather than quality.

Engineer Jackson Mubangizi, President of Uganda Institution of Professional Engineers echoes their sentiments and says the public doesn’t demand for professional services quite often as they should which renders professionals out of work. He says government has a role to play in promoting the use of professional engineers and correspondingly the public needs to learn to make use of professional services so as to boost the construction industry.

Building materials

Material chosen for any construction activity should be able to perform their required function without any failure yet André Mellet points out material failure as one of the causes of building collapses. He adds that material choice is the responsibility of the structural engineer who should have the knowledge, experience and understanding of materials chosen at the design phase, and whether they are able to perform their required function.

The award winning architect says incompatible materials chosen for a structure can lead to material failure and collapse adding that faulty construction and sub-standard materials during construction, in order to save money, and due to limited knowledge, contractors may want to take shortcuts in the construction and use sub-standard and cheaper building materials.

He says the engineer who does not inspect and insist on materials and construction as specified is also at fault here. André Mellet says contractors should know the negative consequences of taking shortcuts and using sub-standard building materials can be far more costly in case of catastrophic building failure. He calls for penalties to be imposed in the event of a contractor not following specifications adding that the local authorities should have the power to stop building work, until specifications are adhered to.

Capacity

The building and construction industry professionals play a major role in ensuring that all projects they are involved in are completed successfully and without any room for failure leading to collapses. This calls for sufficient number of professionals to meet the growing demand from developers. However, Africa is facing a dire deficit of these industry professionals.

Engineer Mustafa Shehu points out that most development control offices in Nigeria do not have adequate technical capacity to handle checks and approvals of many designs are hurriedly done without checking in order to avoid delay. He says to get approval for a building project in a Nigerian city, Lagos, Abuja Port- Harcourt, Kano etc, as at now may take 6 months! He adds that qualified and competent professionals from the development control office are needed at various construction stages of the project and indeed up to commissioning.

He further says the professional regulatory bodies also have to take part of the blame for building collapses citing that in Nigeria, it is just recently they have started working on a proposal whereby the Council for Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria, COREN, is to ensure that only qualified consultants work on any approved project and all engineering projects have to be certified by COREN notwithstanding the processes at the Development Control offices.

Engineer Jackson Mubangizi, President of UIPE, also notes that the construction industry in Uganda largely lacks professional engineers and this leads to substandard works in the industry. The former president of FIDIC, Mr. Geoff French, agrees that skill shortages is a major challenge facing the industry. He says the industry must continue to maintain the highest standards for sustainability, integrity and quality adding that if it does, its clients will increasingly recognise the critical role of consulting engineers in providing the right infrastructure, in the right place, at the right time and at the right cost.

Qs. David M. Gaitho, Chairman of the Institute of Quantity Surveyors of Kenya (IQSK), agrees that the African building and construction industry is plagued with many problems such as undertrained “consultants” leading to stalling and collapsing of buildings.

Mr. Gaitho applauds the Kenyan government for the establishment of National Construction Authority as a big step forward in reforming the industry and looks forward to its full establishment even at County levels. He urges the government to listen and implement proposals made by professionals during conferences and seminars for the continued improvement of the construction industry. He also calls for the involvement of quantity surveyors in all construction budgets for public bodies and infrastructure projects for proper financial control to avoid stalled projects due to underfunding.

André Mellet says building staff on site should be suitably trained and up to the job they have to perform adding that if workers are not qualified they should be trained and not be left to carry on work without supervision. He recommends that some sort of certificate be introduced as proof that workers are trained for the job they perform on site and local authorities should not allow building work to continue without an engineer appointed on the job.

Site supervision

Former President of Uganda Association of Technical Professions and current Managing Director, African Consulting Surveyors and Valuers, Mr. Edward Seth Mungati, points a finger at professionals whom he accuses of laxity.

He explains that most architects these days merely design the project and once the controlling authority has approved the plans, architects are not keen on monitoring the projects.

The former President of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), currently Director at Iliso Consulting in Centurion and President of the Federation of African Engineering Organisations (FAEO), Dr. Van Veelen on his part agrees that apart from officials who turn a blind eye when approving the plans for a building, lack of proper supervision during construction compounds the problem.

André Mellet recommends that qualified engineers should be paid during construction by the employer to perform inspections and to ensure contractors follow their specifications. He adds that no construction should be allowed to continue prior to the appointment of a structural engineer taking full responsibility for the structure. He concludes that authorities should inspect building work regularly together with the engineer and building work be stopped should there be instances where building codes and safety precautions have not been met on site.

Building designs

Dr. Van Veelen, says that although there are cases where engineers have made mistakes in the design of a structure, most of the problems arise from developers who take short-cuts and avoid paying the fee for a competent engineer, and officials who turn a blind eye when approving the plans for a building.

He adds that there are cases where a building is designed and approved for a certain number of floors but the developer later illegally adds one or more storeys. He points out that excessive loading for which the structure was not designed is wrong adding that this is especially true for retrofitting air conditioning equipment on the roof of an existing building.

The developers in the Tanzanian building that collapsed for instance violated a permit to build an apartment building with 10 floors and at the time of collapse, it had 16 completed floors, with 3 more planned for a total of 19 floors.

André Mellet says bad design by professionals can be a contributor. Mellet says design is the responsibility of the structural engineer. He notes that a building is designed to withstand dead load or its own weight and live loads which are the weight of persons and objects within the building as well as the weight of wind, rain and hail.

He says structural failure occurs should the design be wrong and a component or the structure as a whole loses its ability to carry these loads. Andre notes that in a well designed structural system even localized failure should not result in immediate or even progressive collapse of an entire structure. The design should also conform to minimum building codes.

André also lists foundation failure as one other consideration. He says a well designed structure will not stand on a bad foundation, since the structure might be able to carry its loads, but the earth below might not, and cause the building to collapse. He says extraordinary loads can also lead to collapsing of a building and are often due to natural causes like hurricanes and earthquakes. He notes that a building that is supposed to stand for many years is supposed to withstand these natural causes.

He recommends that structural engineers with experience and knowledge of materials, minimum specifications, building codes and structural systems should be appointed to perform the design of a structure. Andre says that money should be spent on geotechnical studies to determine soil conditions. The engineer can then design the foundations correctly according to the building’s function and the soil conditions on site, minimizing collapse due to foundation failure.

Dr. Van Veelen concludes that while it is true that there are disturbingly many reports about the failure of buildings, there are many thousands of buildings completed where there are no problems and one can safely say that the failures are the exceptions, rather than the rule. He is however quick to point out that this does not take away the fact that there should be NO failures at all.

Everytime a building collapses the story never fails to catch the headlines and the media goes into a frenzy and both government and consultants issue statement of condemnation but little is done to reverse the situation and once the dust has settled its back to business as usual. We can safely say that several factors are to blame that need to be tackled such as the lack of enforcement of bylaws, lack of site supervision, non-compliance by developers and contractors, fees undercutting, unregulated players, unplanned construction, incompetent professionals and use of substandard materials is to blame.

This therefore means that only a concerted effort will alleviate this state of affairs otherwise we will still continue to read of more tragedies ahead.

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