Lack of thorough subsoil investigation responsible for building collapse —Awobodu

BCPGIn this interview with Tunde Alao, pioneer president of Building Collapse Prevention Guild (BCPG), Mr. Kunle Awobodu, who is also a fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Builders, makes recommendations on what the incoming government in Lagos State should do to address the problem of building collapse in the state.

 

What is BCPG, its goals and objectives?

By way of introduction, the Guild is an independent body, whose activities complement efforts of the government at promoting standard construction.  It is a voluntary collaborative effort among all the seven built environment professional bodies in Nigeria in an attempt to devise a more proactive, efficient, effective and an all encompassing solution to the problem of building collapse in Nigeria, especially, Lagos state.

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The objectives of BCPG are; To promote better building standards through public awareness campaigns on best building practices and construction of good structures; Liaise with professionals in various construction sectors to enlighten and encourage the citizenry on the use of experts for construction works; To create awareness through the use of Community Development Associations and Resident Associations on the activities of the Guild in order to prevent building collapse and to promote and institute neighourhood alerts on poor construction works and buildings showing signs of structural failure. Other objectives are to enlighten construction workers and equip them psychologically against ignorance and pilfering of construction materials; Fght paucity of artisans by encouraging youths for skills acquisition; Discourage professional segregation, wrangling, rifts and promote synergy, interworking relationships among construction and built environment professionals for betterment of the construction industry; Advocate for importance of subsoil investigations through the publication of materials and journals, include advocacy for bills that will encourage mortgage system capable of easing the burden of owning a house at a huge cost  from estate developers that build substandard houses and sell at a huge cost;To sensitize the public on the importance of building control through publication of magazines and journals and to promote advocasy for legislation that will ensure government at various levels and their agencies implement laws and regulations on building control, among others.

 

From your findings, what exactly are the causes of building collapse, particularly, in Lagos State?

Causes of building collapse, as  identified by BCPG, include; Faulty design and copied design; Lack of comprehensive subsoil investigation before designs are done; Lack of professional supervision during construction and non-adherence to designs and professional advice during construction; Lack of effectiveness of government agencies charged with the monitoring of building procurement and production process.; Quackery at both pre- & post-contract stages; Use of substandard materials, poor workmanship, professional incompetence and lack of Maintenance. Others are perceived greed by developers and contractors, gnorance, pilfering, construction in crisis situation such as omo onile and area boys’ disturbances. Also, unrealistic construction timelines, unrealistic desires of clients, nocturnal concrete work including improper, illegal or unprocessed and unapproved change in use are such factors responsible for building collapse.

The root cause of building collapse can be traced to ‘foundation’. Most foundation problems arise at the design stage because the designers do not pay a visit to the site before carrying out their designs and they do not insist on proper geotechnical reports where the soil type is doubtful.

Poor design, no design at all, bad design implementation, poor construction methods and sub-standard materials are construction evils which may act singly or combine together to compromise the quality of foundation work.

A proper point of departure when starting a foundation design is the soil study or geo-technics which, unfortunately, is being ignored or under-rated by construction industry practitioners.

Many reports confirm that untrained builders commit grave foundation errors either out of ignorance or negligence. Wrong foundation prescription types are specified: strip foundation is constructed where the soil requires a pad foundation while raft foundation is constructed where nothing short of deep pile foundation would suffice. Due to free rein of substandard piling works in the poor terrain of Lagos State, it is predicted that the state will witness series of building failure attributed to weak foundations. To curtail this ugly trend, the BCPG has been talking to notable practitioners in the foundation construction on the ways of sanitising that sector.

 

From professional’s point of view, how would the sector be sanitised?

It may be a surprise to many that most buildings in Lagos state are not put together by the people who are trained to do so. Architects, Civil, Structural, Mechanical and Electrical Engineers, Quantity Surveyors, Builders, are virtual on-lookers in the Building Construction game as they do not participate in the more than 20percent of the total volume of construction activities in the state. A survey revealed that over 45,000 sites existed at a time in Lagos State. 20percent  of this translates to 9,000. Hence by deduction, quacks and other faceless characters by whatever names called are responsible for the remaining 80 percent. A whooping 36,000 potential collapses waiting to happen, on the average!

Developers in Lagos State have been fingered for constructing many of the weak buildings in Lagos. Developers are largely business men and women who invest in ‘build, operate and transfer’ projects. In most cases they do not possess professional qualifications in Building or in any of its related fields. This system of property development originated on the Lagos Island: The family heads seek the assistance of a developer to demolish the existing, old family building and replace it with a massive, high rise structure that could generate more revenue. The developer sources funds and an agreement is entered into between the family and the developer. For example, the family is to be provided a space in the proposed building free of charge while the developer will let out the remaining spaces. That building will be managed by the developer for between 20 and 30 years to recoup his or her initial investment and also consolidate on his or her gains. At expiration, the building’s ownership and management are transferred to the family.

This arrangement creates a transient interest for the developer. Since his ownership of the property is temporary, the astute developer begins to think of how to reduce his construction cost. He would begin to strategize on constructing massive structure that would yield large returns but to be accomplished on a low budget. He would assemble cheap workers for the construction and economize on the materials while he or an unqualified person would supervise the project. From inception to completion the project is punctured with poor designs, shoddy construction and crude finishing. The imprints of substandard constructions are all over the project. The ignorant family would become the inheritor of the ‘accident waiting to happen’.

 

With this revelation, what has your group done to stem the tide?

Well, what we did in the beginning,  members of the BCPG began to converse with the developers. We educated them on the need to engage professionals in their projects. They expressed their fears that the professionals would be expensive. Cost remains the issue of blackmail for construction professionals. Many clients in this milieu are scared to approach professionals, thereby falling prey to the antics of artisans, who detest supervision and readily advise clients to avoid professionals in order to save cost. Our industry suffers quackery because of the desire to cut construction costs. Are these people penny wise or pound foolish?

However, since developers control the funds for their projects, they have an advantage over the construction professionals. More so, developers are still largely patronised without any law preventing their involvement in construction. The BCPG, therefore, has established a relationship with the association of developers and are pressurizing them into engaging construction professionals to prevent them from being labeled the apostles of building collapse. Besides, BCPG proposes a pragmatic approach to install due processes in building procurement. Names of registered and active professionals in the built environment are to be published on the BCPG website. Its assumed that with adequate publicity, inquisitive clients could conveniently check the status of the individuals they are likely to engage on their projects. Such development will reduce quackery drastically in building projects. False claims would easily be detected and membership of the built environment professional bodies will be enriched.

 

How will you assess the performance of relevant government agencies in the scheme of things?

The agency of government responsible for the monitoring of the quality of materials being used for building construction in Nigeria is the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON). As stipulated in the laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990, the functions of the body’s council (Standards Council of Nigeria) include: to designate, establish and approve standards in respect of metrology, materials, commodities, structures and processes for the certification of products in commerce and industry throughout Nigeria. The council is also to provide the necessary measures for quality control of raw materials and products in conformity with the standard specification.

In the seventies and early eighties, building collapse was not as prevalent a word in the Nigerian construction lexicology. Truly in those days, the drive for excess profit among manufacturers, distributors and retailers of building materials was minimal. SON, it seemed, was in control then. As physical development advanced rapidly, especially in Lagos State, the Nigerian currency, Naira suffered depreciation due to massive devaluation from the eighties. Inflation and the dwindling economic power of prospective building owners ushered in an era of illegality and sharp practices in the construction industry. This resulted in a gradual reduction of materials’ quality. Unfortunately, just a matter of time; SON became overstretched and overwhelmed. Building collapse gradually became a regular occurrence. Today, the relevant questions are: How frequent do the building materials that are being sourced locally, and those imported, undergo quality control and checks? Do the blocks being moulded in different parts of Nigeria meet the SON specification? What are the chloride, alkaline and carbon-dioxide content of cement being used for our building construction? Is there any expiry date on the cement bags? What are checks on the cement strength? Do our iron bars meet the required minimal standard of 420N/mm2 yield stress or satisfy the 12% minimum elongation under test? Do the timber members being used for roofing attain the required strength or maturity? Why do we have varying qualities of electrical and plumbing materials in the Nigerian building industry?

 

From the foregoing, what will you recommend, especially, as new government will assume power in the next few months to come?

To overcome the challenges of quality monitoring in the Nigerian building industry, we hereby recommend to the Nigerian government the need to establish an agency that will be solely responsible for the quality and the monitoring of building materials. Such an organisation must be independent of the SON. Appropriate acronyms could be BSON – Building Standards Organisation of Nigeria or NIBO – Nigerian Building Standards Organisation.

Establishment of Lagos State Materials Testing Laboratory (LSMTL) has really complemented the efforts of SON. However, there is need for government to subsidise charges on tests so as to encourage patronage. Moreover, the laboratories should be spread across the state for easy accessibility. Meanwhile, BCPG is already collaborating with SON and LSMTL in the struggle against building collapse.  However, BCPG is on a self-sponsored voluntary assignment. High cost of conducting tests, despite some discounts at the LSMTL, limits the scope of tests on materials recovered from collapsed building sites. Another area the incoming government should look into is before a structure is erected in the state, it is supposed to have a valid building approval- document validating the design of the structure to be built at a giving location. Any change of use is supposed to be done only after due approval by the relevant government agency.

It has been observed that property owners change the use of a building from what was approved to another design that could generate higher income. For example, a three bedroom bungalow designed and built for a single unit residential purpose could be changed to a four storey building with one and two bedroom units without due approval. Indiscriminate change of use from residential to commercial building or warehouse without due approval has contributed immensely to the prevalent high rate of building collapse. This is where the government should employ the services of qualified Estate surveyors. Besides, renovation and remodelling works are also required to be approved before construction works commence but this requirement is treated with ignominy. Renovation and remodelling works involve a lot of demolition of, and chiselling into concrete works and block works, cutting of reinforcement bars, breaking of walls, replacement of electrical wiring, etc and should be done under strict professional supervision. This is not usually the case as artisans are hired most of the time to perform these tasks.

Another important area that government needs to show more interest is procurement of lands and Title documentation.

The process of application for obtaining Certificate of Occupancy or Governor’s Consent for landed property in Lagos State is too cumbersome, time-consuming, bureaucratic, expensive, rent-seeking and unnecessarily unwieldy. It is also very discouraging for the struggling masses that are over-stretching themselves to put a roof on their heads.

Since Lagos State Government has made the possession of this title documents condition- precedent for processing and obtaining Development Permits or Building Plan Approvals, the average time- duration for processing these documents need to be shortened to a maximum of three (3) months. And all other conditions including costs should be citizen-friendly.

Attainment of this will drastically reduce the prevalent spate of illegal physical developments going on in different parts of the state in very large quantum with little or no control.

Also, with continuous astronomical increase in the population of low and medium income segments of the State’s citizenry and paradoxical decrease in the required matching affordable social residential accommodation, it is only pertinent that State government needs to pro-actively intervene by developing a very Comprehensive Action- Plan with multi-prong approaches that will address these intractable housing shortfalls frontally by both Governments (Federal, State and Local) and Private Sector. Obviously, not in the trickles being presently experienced and which can hardly be physically felt by these classes of citizens.

Again, the setting up of General Reis led-Technical Committee on policy reform on Planning Regulation and Building Control in Lagos State, the concomitant enactment of Planning and Building Control Law of 2010 and the subsequent establishment of Lagos State Building Control Agency, by the past administration, led by Mr. Babatunde Fashola,  must be commended for its strong commitment to fighting building collapse scourge in the State.

However, the courage to sincerely investigate its own shortcomings in the collapsed government buildings would have translated into re-assessing its own internal mechanism, putting round pegs in round holes and thereby receive acclamation from the public. That would have dispersed any spectre of a double standard. So, the incoming administration must strive to address the shortcomings inherent in the agencies.

Finally, prosecutions, sanctions and punishments should be coming at twice the rate at which buildings are collapsing. We hear embarrassing reports daily of buildings crashing down all around us, but the airwaves are deafeningly silent on arrests, prosecutions and punishments. Something is wrong here, and it is called compromise. Until appropriate punishments are meted out to erring landlords, compromised ministry officials and negligent professionals, we will continue to have more of the same. Taking over a collapsed building site by the government is not enough, neither is demolishing the structure an intellectually stimulating solution.

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