Sadly it is the poorest and most densely populated countries that bear the brunt of the most brutal manifestations of building control failure when disaster presents itself.

Be it by way of poorly conceived building regulation, compromised construction quality, or the inadequacy of building regulation and urban control enforcement, it is the poorer countries that sustain the highest death tolls.

Disasters can take the shape of tsunamis, cyclones or climate change induced water rising. They could come in the form of earthquakes, bushfires, fire infernos in large high density poorly constructed buildings or even ebola, which is a correlated to poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding and inadequate health infrastructure.

History has shown that it is naïve to think that a developing country can adopt and embrace western best practice building control regimes holus-bolus, because the economic, governmental, and probity systems differ so greatly and so profoundly. The traditional approach of seeing the task of urban and regulatory law reform through western “lenses” is misconceived and passé.

It is time for a new normal, fashioned by a new orthodoxy where the approach to the task of building and urban regulatory reform is conceived through very open minded lenses, devoid of preconceptions and the baggage of “the what we have done in the past is the way we do things in the future” mindset. A “blank canvas” disposition is the new order of the new day.

To get the ball rolling, one needs to start by identifying the most critical utilitarian urban and building control universal imperatives and these are:

  1. The construction of buildings that provide safe and structurally sound shelter with the complements of warmth for cold climates and temperate conditions in oppressively hot environments.
  2. Sound sanitary and hygiene conditions have to be in place to minimise the spread of contagious diseases (ebola being the most graphic and recent example of urban sanitary failure). This entails sound sewerage and effluent management and migration systems.
  3. Sound water supply that guarantees the provision of healthy drinking water, devoid of pernicious elements, be they of the bacterial, parasitic, viral or chemical persuasion.
  4. The provision of power, be it electricity, wind or solar generated to deliver warmth, air-conditioning, air in-flow and out-flow and the ability for people to cook and refrigerate.

If the building control regime is coloured by these complementary and dominant brush strokes then one is off to a damn good start. Regard must be given as to how to best utilise sustainable and natural elements along with traditional modes of construction.

In many parts of Africa, homes are built with mud, sticks and thatched rooves, particularly in rural regions; the construction elements are derived from the immediate and accessible environment. Such abodes would not pass conventional western building control inspection, but as long as the above imperatives are evident in the building of structurally sound abodes, with the provision of power and safe drinking water, the capacity to evacuate effluent and toxic debris by sound sanitation and hygiene conditions, then the essential holistic elements that engender safety and comfort are generated.

Likewise in many parts of the world, even western countries like Australia, mud-brick is a popular construction element and its paramount virtue is that it is derived from the land upon which one is intent on building and can be manufactured by locals with the most elementary of skills. One just needs the mud brick mould, the dirt, some H2o, some hay, some sun, and one has all they need.

Traditionally, developed nations have taken a top-down approach, funding and the engaging with central government in developing countries. Where the developing country is typically defined by large land expanse, over populated urban metropolises and isolated rural communities, it has proved nigh on impossible to effect and implement sound building control regimes.

Even with the recent ebola epidemic, it was found that change was best engineered where regionally based sovereigns or chiefs in local communities were able to gain the cooperation and enthusiasm of the more venerated community representatives to inspire changes in community practices that would minimise the spread of the disease. The local dignitaries were able to facilitate paradigm cultural shift because they were indigenous to the region, and were trusted by those living there.

The community based and driven approach could have more universal application in terms of how to mobilise serious change and paradigm shift which, after all, is what law reform so often engineers.

Instead of generating a new Building Act for an entire country, one should develop a set of building and urban regulations for a municipality or a region, It is also important to engage with the community leaders from the outset, with the view to designing a set of regulatory holistics, “bespoke” regulations if you will. These regulations and the subsequent as-built regime can then be used as a model or a working template for other regions to have regard to for adoption or adaptation.

It is a “bite sized chunk” approach, where the taste resonates with the local palate rather than a “one size fits all” approach. It gives the local community the ability to fashion enlightened building control imperatives that intelligently marry with elements that are part of the local DNA.

The third millennium has said goodbye to “the great white hunter” and “the west knows best” approach. There is a changing of the guard which must herald a new way of looking at law reform in developing countries and ways by which one can generate a marriage between best practice building control fundamentals and that which is practical and achievable regionally.

Furthermore, one is potentially embracing a “tail wagging the dog” approach, so to speak, if one uses the regionally inspired and controlled method of building control re-engineering rather than the established “dog wagging the tail” law reform prototype. The traditional top-down approach has proven to be too remote, too abstract and isolated from the mediums and the forces that possess the mandate for the changing of the status quo.

  • Kim, I read of your frustration and sadness in this and other recent articles. More than often it is buildings that kill people and not earthquakes. From my research, experience and observations it is fair to say it is not always materials that are to blame but the way they are used. Earth can be used safely and concrete and steel poorly. Poor use of reinforced concrete in multi-storey construction has catastrophic consequences. Engineered reinforced concrete multi-storey buildings need first world regulation and control. Smaller self built earth dwellings don't. I share your frustration having worked towards delivery of housing that is not only affordable but safe, comfortable, durable, healthy and desirable. Imagine my frustration when a bamboo reinforced cob solution has been built and trialled in Mindanao and tested on UTS shake table and no one is interested. Not one aid agency attended the test and only two replied to the press release of the results. It is suitable for rebuilding better homes in Vanuatu, Philippines and Nepal and no one is interested. The system is freely available online, open source. Housing the world safely is not a Millennium goal – too big.

  • Unfortunately Kim it is not only 3rd world countries that suffer this issue – 1st world countries such as New Zealand (post 2010 earthquakes) share the same fate. Governments and insurance companies succumb to the mighty dollar and put savings above and beyond the safety and future sustainability of vulnerable populations. What I see take place here in Christchurch is a travesty – cheap repairs and quick fixes which are requiring reassessment and renewed work – build back better is a concept little understood. Just like the leaky building fiasco – the government-funded agencies, Housing New Zealand, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s Engineering Advisory Group (MBIE) and the Building Research Association of NZ (BRANZ), are responsible for the approved and endorsed new low-cost methods of repairs in the form of MBIE Guidelines. These are having a devastating impact on the quality of repairs to damaged homes in Christchurch. Just like the Christchurch repair fiasco, the leaky homes crisis followed deregulation of the building practice, where a resulting lack of rules meant problems with design and products left thousands of homeowners with serious and costly ongoing problems.
    Since the first earthquake in Canterbury in September 2010, the infamous MBIE Guidelines have been amended several times with more amendments to follow, producing cheaper and less adequate repair solutions. Cheaper for EQC, the contractor and ultimately the Government. The insurers jumped on the wagon for use with ‘over-the-cap repairs’ as well – which is another issue entirely. Certainly absolutely no benefits to the homeowner were achieved by use of these techniques.

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