Construction Calamity: Chinese Building Collapse

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Monday, January 4th, 2016
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The Shenzhen building debris mudslide is another construction calamity that brings into focus building and urban control regulation for all the wrong reasons.

Building failures resulting in loss of lives have assumed a serial dimension in recent times, particularly in areas that have experienced rapid urbanisation.

The cause of the construction calamity

Over the last couple of years, massive amounts of building waste were deposited on a site proximate to neighbouring buildings on an industrial site. Such was the volume of waste that was either by neglect or aquiesence permitted to accumulate, that what would have initially been a benign pile “morphed” into a man-made waste mountain. The debris comprised concrete, discarded building materials and by product.

Torrential rains descended on the “apparatus” and turned the waste into a muddy hill. The means by which this potential menace was contained were insufficient so that it got to the point where the waste broke through the containment wall and unleashed a tsunami of mud.

The result

Some 94 acres were enveloped and and 33 buildings were destroyed. The mudslide left in its wake collapsed residential buildings, dormitories and commercial facilities. The devastation extended to loss of life and missing persons; more than 80 last count.

How could this happen? Simply put the building control regime failed and many actors were responsible namely:

Deficient  building regulations

I’m no expert on Chinese building regulations, but for the purposes of these diagnostics I don’t need to be. You don’t need to be an expert to figure out that any building and urban control system that is blase enough to allow for a construction failure of this magnitude leaves a lot to be desired. The regime didn’t measure up and it repudiated the key tenets of building control, the protection of property and the avoidance of prejudice to life and limb.

The regulatory regime was deficient in a number of key respects

  • Insufficient controls for waste migration planning. If effective controls had been in place, the local authority would not have allowed the constructors to dump huge volumes of waste on a site adjoining the building site over many months.
  • Insufficient controls with  respect to safe containment of building waste. Sound regulations would have dictated that the local authority’s inspectorate would not have permitted the dumping of waste in circumstances where the material wasn’t safely contained. There would have been a robust inspection regime enabling regular inspections to occur by qualified building officials.
  • A robust building control regime would have been such that building officials would have issued compliance orders demanding work to stop or the generation of safe containment or migration of waste.

What do the Chinese policy makers need to do to fix the system?

It is axiomatic that the government needs to review its building regulations and here are some pointers:

  • Introduce regulations that stipulate the building permits cannot be issued unless local officials approve a waste migration plan that identifies the way by which waste will be migrated to a suitable and approved destination. The destination, be it local or far away, must be such that the official is satisfied that once migrated, the waste poses no threat to structure, life or limb. No plan, no building permit, period.
  • There needs to be regulation that augments an inspectorate armed with the powers to carry out random and regular inspections and a notice and order arsenal that can be deployed to intervene and regularise non-compliance.
  • Powerful penalties need to be introduced to punish and disincentivise recalcitrants and recidivists  from breaking the law, be they contractors or building officials who go “MIA.” Even a tort of criminal negligence could be considered and applied if evidence were to be adduced that reveals that non-compliance with apposite safety regulations caused death. Jail sentences could be contemplated. Japanese building regulations harbour such powers.

There is some speculation that stiff penalties were in existence but were not applied. It follows that the enforcement culture needs to be re-engineered to ensure that officials develop a high level of regulatory vigilance in terms of enforcement and compliance. Regulations can only be enforced if there is the willingness and the critical mass of building official resources available to enforce the compliance regime.

The provincial Treasury may need to boost enforcement funding. The Latvian supermarket roof collapse that killed a great many people a couple of years ago occurred against a backdrop of the dispansion of the national building inspectorate. The Latvian tragedy provided rather graphic recognition of the premise that a parsimonious approach to building control and enforcement doesn’t bode well for life, limb and property protection.

Regulations can only be enforced if there is the willingness and the critical mass of building official resources available to enforce the compliance regime.  The provincial Treasury may need to boost enforcement funding.  The Latvian supermarket roof collapse that killed a great many people a couple of years ago occurred against a backdrop of the dispansion of the national building inspectorate.  The Latvian tragedy provided rather graphic recognition of the premise that a parsimonious approach to building control and enforcement doesn’t bode well for life, limb and property protection.

  • Myopia is out of the question, Chinese policy makers should have regard to international best practice building regulations and consult with best practice policy Tsars in their quest to forge best practice building regulations. I’m sure the panel of experts in the Centre for Best Practice Building Control would be happy to be used as a sounding board.

Saving lives is a universal imperative, not only a provincial or local humanitarian responsibility, so regard to international benchmarks is an imperative.

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