How government can halt building collapse –Okoronkwo

By Vincent Kalu

The Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Kings Court Realtors, Emeka Okoronkwo, has highlighted steps the government can  take to mitigate incessant collapse of buildings. He was speaking against the background of the recent collapse of 21 storey building under construction in Ikoyi, Lagos.

He spoke to Daily Sun in Lagos. Excerpts

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Reasons the 21-storey building under construction collapsed in Lagos

The only way we can understand it is to do a proper analysis of what happened. The people that are competent to do this are forensic engineers. There are enough materials on that site to tell us what went wrong. So, it is up to the authorities if they want assistance we can offer them.

However, only two things can cause construction failure. One is lack of integrity of the construction materials. Integrity refers to strength. The second one is instability, which refers to how the loads in the building are divided. If the loads are not divided and transferred through correct vector lines down to the base, which is the foundation, it will collapse. If the load is too much for the strength of the foundation, it will collapse. If the soil test wasn’t professionally done, and there is an unequal settlement in the foundation, it will fall. The same lack of integrity in terms of professional efficiency of the structural engineering calculations will lead to this collapse. What happened at that site is failure of professional integrity. If the professionals there were competent, you would never find this type of calamity. It is only a weak character that will permit weak materials to be used for a building that would serve the public.

Let me use this opportunity to make a distinction. A developer’s responsibility is to the people that gave him money whether to the people that bought off plan or the bank that lent him money; that is the people he is answerable to. If the building was abandoned in future, the people that gave him money which may be banks or the investors would not hold the architect; they won’t. There are three aspects of a building intervention. The developer is after the money and his profits; the site is under the management of the professionals; the head of the construction team is the architect. The architect is the agent of government in the site. He took an oath to ensure that everything he does is in compliance with the regulations. This is why the government cannot give approval to a developer, but a qualified architect.

A construction team is made up of an architect, a structural engineer, a quantity surveyor, a mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, civil engineer, town planner if you like and then an estate surveyor and valuer. When these approvals are obtained, government would periodically come to the site, but it doesn’t have enough manpower to be at every site 24 hours. So they expect that the person that they have given authority would act on his professional integrity based on the oath of professional acceptability or confirmation of the body he belongs. In every site, there is site meeting. These site meetings are such that the whole work is reviewed to ensure that it is in line. When people try to place their blames, we should understand how it functions. Government, are they culpable? Yes to an extent.

The ultimate clients in a development site are the end users; some of them may be oblivious of how the construction was done and at the end of the day, they would bear the consequences of shabby work. This is the more reasons that the government must step in now to protect the public. You cannot be a judge in your own case. A developer should not be selling property directly to the public. Before, a patent medicine dealer used to sell fake drugs to Nigerians until pharmacists through Dora Akunyili insisted that anywhere you want to sell medication to Nigerians; a qualified pharmacist must be there to protect the public.

The moment that was done, statistics shows that the medications that Nigerians used to take and the consequences came down to about 80 per cent. The same way for the estate surveyors and valuers, their course is such that they have working knowledge of these sister professionals – architects, quantity surveyors, civil engineering, town planning, and structural engineering. If estate valuers are representing end users, it is easy for him to say this is in compliance or is not in compliance because at the end of the day the construction team will leave the site, he will be the one to manage the property. The consequences will be for him to deal with the daily challenge of these end users.

Are there other failures in property development?

There is also building services failure. When there are poor materials for electrical works, plumbing works, kitchen cabinet, etc. Those ones may not directly cause life and death, but what it does is what we call, the ‘money pit’; you keep spending money in that house, which you never planned, and sometimes it results to death. You hear stories of people electrocuted while having a bath. The next kind of building failure is the design defects. If you are not trained, when you look at your house, what you are going to see is the beauty of the picture; the architect will so beautify the external that you think it is lovely. But, a trained eye will look at the workability, how practical is it to live in this house. How is the air in the house, is there going to be lighting problems, will you need to spend more money on power and all that. Will you have accident because a lot of people design houses that each time people are falling down and the old people, young children can’t function there? All those things don’t open the eyes of an average investor. The final building failure occurs out of poor maintenance. At each point in time, this is an incredible cost to the end user. To be able to mitigate the cost is to run ahead of time and get involved in the construction because the bitterness of low quality will stay longer after the joy of cheap price is gone.  Go and ask those that are buying these retail houses, the moment they buy it, come and see how much expenditure they incur, some of them in one year have to change all the plumbing and electrical fittings. Those things are happening because developers are allowed to sell directly to the public; there is no buffer between them. The best thing to do is for the government to empower the participation of estate surveyors and valuers and professionals realtors. Their role is fundamental and we have seen it now, where scores of people died there. We can forestall this.   

With poor building materials especially from China, do you more buildings collapse in future

 The truth is that we hope that it doesn’t happen.  A lot of people are wise enough to leave the construction of the building carcass which is the most fundamental part of the building to professionals. When that is done with integrity, you are sure the building cannot collapse. What they normally do is that they divide the construction into phases. During phase one, they allow a known professional to do the carcass. When it is standing well, they now take it over and do the finishing themselves.

There is what that is called Client Relationship. I’m professional, if you come to seek my service; you are going to be guided by me. A developer is under the professional protection of an architect. In the same way, the public should be under the professional protection of the valuer when you want to buy property.

It is then my responsibility to go the extra mile to ask those questions that you didn’t even think of, to ensure that your investments are better protected. In that regard, there is what we call in my profession ‘caveat emptor’; beware. You can only beware if you are dealing with a professional who knows the right questions to ask. We ask those right questions and if we do not have satisfactory answers we blow the alarm to the end user. But if you do not have us in all these multiplicity of developments; you, the investor are at the mercy of the developer. Whatever he is given, he takes it. This tragedy at hand would have been forestalled if the government has made it possible for this man to have appointed a valuer. There is no qualified estate surveyor and valuer that would stand and sell this kind of property to the public after observing that there were obvious infractions and regulations were not followed. We won’t do it; we have a responsibility to protect the public; the same way the architect has the responsibility to protect the investor. If the developer comes to say he has approval for 15 floors, made it 21. What was the role of the professionals in this thing? If the professional said, no, this tragedy would not have happened.

With this tragedy, how does the outside world view Nigeria; for a property that was given approval for 15 floors was raised to 21?

Government agents in a construction site are the professionals they gave approval to. Government is required statutorily to pay visit to the site to ensure compliance, but the responsibility rests squarely on the professionals at the site to do the right thing. Should this have been identified earlier on, the tragedy would have been avoided. When government wants to give approvals for certain kind of buildings, it should also do a little bit of background check of professionals that are applying for approval; you have to worry about their experiences, the engineers at the site, the equipment. I will suggest that for certain kinds of site, let the professionals at the site be already proven. Government should have the responsibility to appoint other professionals to join them.

If government has said, in the whole of Ikoyi and Victoria Island, we are appointing three architects to periodically give us quarterly reports on project sites A, B, C, D, E, etc, over and above the architects that we have given approval, we can begin to see balanced opinion, especially where either staff of government are likely compromised, incompetent or unknowledgeable. However, whichever you look at it, government cannot be at site from day one of construction to conclusion. Unfortunately, that is why it required that people who are qualified are the ones given approval to do this work. I’m not absolving the government, but the responsibility lies with the professionals.

Don’t you think with what has happened; it will put fear in people who live in the high rise buildings in the Island?

Without a doubt, it will put fears in them, but we have competency in Nigeria. When we were in school and we were sitting in board to review a construction job. About three of them had made presentations on their bids. One bided and his price was 40 per cent higher than the others. One other person bided 10 per cent above what the quantity surveyor said the cost of construction was going to be. Our supervisor left us to make a decision. Funny enough about 60 percent of us said we should go with the cheapest price. I asked one question, this man that was bidding so low if we give him this job how is going to survive because you can’t do a job of this magnitude and you can’t make a decent profit. If a job is ten million naira and somebody is quoting N10.5 million, how is he going to do the job and how will he survive after the job with N500, 000. It means that there will be compromises somewhere. What we did was to call the man who bided 40 per cent and reduced it to 30 percent. With this it was decent earning.  There is no need getting an architect and start arguing with him about his fees and agreed with one funny amount. He is going to cut corners to make money. Government should help to ensure that professional fees are paid adequately. We are also left in the hands of all these developers and they will manipulate, do this and that and may not pay you. Since there are no jobs, anything he offers, you take it and start cutting corners.

If we are also trying to be holistic, building construction and building purchase are the highest investments individuals are making in their lives time. So, both construction and purchase are too technical to be left in the hands of an average investor who has his own challenges. So, he needs guidance. All of these developments springing up all over the places, government must step in now because people may not die in one storey building, duplexes etc, every day, but they are suffering in those buildings because of construction failure, defects in design and service failure in those places. The only way that the society can be further protected is to make it a law that a developer cannot sell property to the public without the certification of an estate surveyor and valuer or realtor. Just like you cannot buy drugs in a pharmacy shop today without a pharmacist approving to dispense it. This way will save life and also save investments.                    

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