Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Buildings as death traps

Help! Somebody should help save the souls of Nigerians daily dying from collapsed buildings. Enough of this carnage. Enough of these preventable deaths of innocent Nigerians who in a bid to earn a living or have shelter over their heads fall victim to buckled buildings. It has become a daily phenomenon for residential and commercial buildings to collapse like a pack of cards. Some of these buildings crumble under construction while many others give way while being occupied. In either circumstance, many lives are lost and property worth billions of naira destroyed annually.
For a fact, it is not only in Nigeria that we have cases of collapsed buildings. On April 24, 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an eight storey factory building collapsed killing over a thousand people. While it may be true that collapsed structure is a global occurrence; however, the frequency of its happening in Nigeria should give well-meaning compatriots cause for worry and ginger up housing regulatory authorities to action.
Building experts have adduced many reasons for this growing phenomenon. Among them are the use of quacks as building supervisors, use of ill-trained manpower for construction, use of sub-standard materials for building, high cost of building materials, flooding, corruption, lack of mortgage facilities, lack of maintenance culture, and lack of enforcement of building code, etc.
Among the professionals involved in the building industry are architects, draughtsman, engineers, builders, estate managers, soil scientists, masons, plumbers, electricians, welders, carpenters, town planners, painters, tilers, among others. Incidentally, among these professionals are quacks who know next to nothing about their professed field of study. There is no gainsaying that there are many genuine and competent ones. However, these days, the counterfeits are more than the genuine ones. Even the university graduates among these professionals also demonstrate high level of incompetence probably due to the theory-centric nature of our tertiary education. When it comes to field work, they are often lost as most of the things they learnt were in classes and not hands-on.
Some of these professionals who undergo apprenticeship are even worse. Ask a carpenter, welder or plumber to come and fix a problem in your house and you’ll find out their incompetence is in square root. They charge high fees yet render poor quality service. It’s very rare to engage one set of artisans from start to finish on a building project. A friend of mine used three different set of bricklayers while building his house. Many people have expressed preference for artisans from Ghana and Benin Republic due to their high competence levels compared to their Nigerian counterparts. Some of our Nigerian brothers in the building industry are not only inept but are also thieves. If you leave them on your building site without adequate supervision, they’ll not only mess things up but steal some of the materials bought for the project. If they do not have the chance to steal, they resort to wasting the materials. A story was told of a man who due to strict monitoring of the bricklayers on his site prevented the workers from stealing his cement. When they couldn’t steal them, they resorted to wasting same by pouring the mixed concrete into the block holes. These bungling artisans are largely responsible for the soaring incidence of collapsed buildings. They perform worse when there is no experienced site supervisor to guide them appropriately and ensure that they do things properly.
When you add incompetent manpower to the use of sub-standard products in the construction field, it amounts to double jeopardy. Around November 2012, the Director-General of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, Dr. Joseph Odumodu, while delivering a lecture at the monthly meeting of Obafemi Awolowo University Alumni Association, shocked the nation when he said that over 85 per cent of products in Nigeria were substandard. Should this be true, then we are finished. It is not uncommon to hear of adulterated cement, substandard iron rods, counterfeit water closets, termite-prone planks, fake electrical wires and cables, etc. There is no gainsaying that when all or any of these poor quality products are used in the building construction, such edifice cannot stand the test of time.
High cost of building materials is not also helping matters. It is a truth that most buildings in Nigeria are privately owned as governments no longer build mass housing estates for the citizenry. Even the mass housing estates built by the administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari across the country during the Second Republic were largely abandoned and had become a den of night marauders and habitation of rodents and reptiles. Under the administration of ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, with the introduction of monetisation policy, government decided to sell-off its houses across the country. Thus, given the exorbitant cost of land and building materials in many major cities, many individual and corporate property developers resort to cost cutting measures. They prefer cheap and incompetent professionals to highly experienced but expensive ones. They use a mix of standard and sub-standard products for their buildings. The end result is the spate of collapse buildings being witnessed across the country.
Corruption creeps in when regulatory agencies are financially induced to get building approvals for areas where public safety will be compromised or where there should ordinarily be no buildings such as flood plains. Houses on water-ways block drainage and are prone to flooding. Many of the old buildings are starved of proper maintenance which ultimately makes the houses to be prone to dilapidation. Many of the public and private buildings are full of cracks and crevices which are often neglected. Some houses have leaking roofs and pipes, blocked drainages, and many other defects which are not fixed on time. With the buildings exposed to inclement weather, there is no need for a soothsayer to know that such facility is heading for collapse.
Lack of customer friendly mortgage facilities in the country puts undue pressure on individuals to build their private residences. More so, with the exorbitant rent being charged by house-owners in cahoots with their shylock estate agents. It is said that there are about 16 million housing deficits in Nigeria. Thus, there are fewer houses than there are people in need. This drives up the cost of rent and lease. Ultimately, it increases the cost of doing business.
It is unfortunate that over the years not much has been done by government to arrest the ugly trend. When major structures crumpled, committees are set up to examine the remote and immediate causes and that’s where it ends. The culprits are hardly prosecuted nor did the victims and their families care for. They are left to lick their wounds and mourn their losses. The law ought to make property owners liable for causing death and injury to workers or occupants of their property. They should be made to bear the medical cost of the injured and pay compensation to the family of the deceased. Government agencies in charge of housing development and control need to carry out stricter oversight by ensuring compliance of property developers with building code. They need to also conduct integrity or stress test on many old buildings to see if they are still strong enough for human habitation. Building that fail stress tests should be pulled down if the structural defects are irredeemable. In doing this, priority should be given to multi-storey buildings. Housing loans with friendly repayment terms should be given by government and mortgage institutions so that individuals can build quality houses for their families. Above all, let all workers on building sites do quality jobs while tenants of old buildings should be vigilant and watch out for early signs of building disintegration. It would be in their interest to vacate such property immediately before it becomes a death trap.