Why are our buildings collapsing?

Lagos, Nigeria, is probably the continent's building collapse leader with an estimated 135 building collapses between 2007 and 2013 and probably just as many since then. Researchers have found that around 50% collapse during the construction phase. In the last two months two buildings have collapsed in Ibadan and one in Lagos Island.

South Africa is no stranger to building collapses. They are becoming increasingly uncomfortable events with churches and schools not being spared. Numerous buildings collapsed recently in Kwa Zulu Natal following a period of heavy rains which undermined the stability of poorly maintained buildings in vulnerable locations.

There are many reasons why the buildings actually physically collapse, like poor building practice, poor or non existant supervision, unstable soils, absent structure and so on. The reasons themselves are not really relevant in addressing the problem - they are simply a symptoms of the root cause; the absence of responsible building control.

Nigeria has a deeply flawed and dysfunctional building control system. Due to the constitutional reforms instituted at the end of the last century Nigeria's building control systems and functions were transferred from local to centralised state government. Short staffed, under resourced, underskilled and frequently hundreds of miles away from the sites under their control these institutions have failed in their objectives. Reforms, spearheaded by Nigerian architects and engineers, are under way but are unlikely to render results in the short term, which means that buildings will continue to collapse.

South Africa inherited a very strict and functional building control legacy from the British and Boer colonial governments but very little of that legacy remains today. The laws, regulations, standards and overseeing departments are all there but building control at local level is completely dysfunctional or corrupt in most municipalities of the country - the big metros being no exception - which simply means that none of the regulatory mechanisms afforded by the laws and regulations are ever applied. And that is why buildings collapse.

So how do we fix this? And fix it we must as it is not something that can carry on claiming innocent lives at an exponential rate forever after. It would be naive to believe that building control authorities can somehow become beacons of virtue and intelligence overnight. It is simply not going to happen. So what is the alternative? Is there an alternative?

What we need is a new building control system which is regulated by the building professions - not corrupt governments, local authorities or completely unqualified individuals. Currently very few - if any - of the individuals employed by local authority building control units have the slightest clue about what is presented to them for approval. Building technology has evolved beyond the perception and understanding of the humble plans inspector  - it is now the sole domain of the building professional.   

Building control needs to be reformed - and it needs to be privatised, organised and administered by the institutions that govern the building professions of Architecture, Quantity Surveying, Engineering and Planning.


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