Joburg : Africa's Newest Third Time Lucky World Class City

Some stories should be told. This is one of them. It is the story of a very expensive North Point...

A Nigerian businessman buys a plot of land in central Johannesburg on one of the principal arteries of the city. A very prominent piece of land on which sat a small building of around 100 years of age.

It was probably the last surviving building of the “original Johannesburg” and was duly protected by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) .

A SAHRA permit for the demolition of the building was obtained in somewhat strange circumstances, the owner contracted a township builder and, without notifying neighbours or City, raised the building to the ground.

As soon as the rubble had been removed from the pavement the builder moved in and dug very deep strip foundations, some as deep as two metres, for what was intended to be a multi storey building. The owners of the adjacent buildings called the Building Inspector in a panic and demanded to see approved drawings from the owner.

The owner duly produced approval documents from SAHRA as well as approved plans from the City of Johannesburg. The application had been lodged and signed by a professional engineer and the architectural drawings attached had been authored by a second year student of architecture at a local university. He said as much on the title panel. Blazoned across the top of the entire A1 were the words “PRINTED ON AUTODESK EDUCATIONAL SOFTWARE” - or something to that effect.

The drawings were anyone's worst nightmare – nothing good can be said of the building design, if you could call it that - there was a building of sorts but design was totally absent.

Totally absent also was a Site Plan on the Site Development Plan (SDP) application documentation. A single site was shown, all on its own, with no adjacent sites and buildings shown or roads for that matter – considering it is a corner site and serviced by two roads.

The building was intended to be multi-use; shops on the ground floor, a factory on the first floor and an apartment or more above that.

On inspection of the plans several issues came to the fore; the building design ignored several basic building regulations and did not comply with the Fire Regulations either.

The most prominent error was the North Point – which appeared to have been lifted from a Portuguese navigator's map and which was the largest element on the page.  This finely embellished North Point was pointing a whole 90 degrees off course.... It pointed East and not North!

It is no secret that the City of Johannesburg's building approval system suffers from a cataclysmic case of corruptionitis at multiple levels. Why let a North Point – or building regulations – get in a way of a good deal?

At any rate, the Building Inspector stops the works and demands to see structural drawings. The owner explained that his builder had told him that he did not need structural drawings as the “architect” had explained in words how he wanted the structure done.

With the works stopped the owner goes looking for an engineer. During this process the local builders start using his site as a dumping ground for rubble and garbage.

Eventually he finds an engineer willing to participate in the project and issues him with a set of the architectural drawings produced by the second year student, still showing the North Point pointing East.

The Engineer tells the owner to fill up all the strip foundations and issues a piling layout, now also showing an incorrect North Point and no roads or adjacent buildings. He has replicated the error without knowing.

The owner then secures the services of a reputable piling contractor and issues the piling layout to them. The contractor asks for the pegs to be located by a Land Surveyor so they may begin work.

The owner goes out a finds a reputable Land Surveyor. He has come to understand that paying for cheap services costs him money and time and only wants to deal with professionals.

So now is the fun part (if you are not the owner).

The Land Surveyor arrives on site, pops out his compass, finds North and orientates the drawing to the site. He marks the pegs and leaves.  Job well done.

The next day the pilling rig arrives and the piling gets under way. Five or six piles into the works the foreman takes a look at the architectural drawing, starts to feel uneasy about the layout and calls his boss. His boss tells him to follow the Land Surveyor's drawing and to get on with it.

Not happy with the reply the foreman calls the owner. The owner tells him to get on with it whilst he calls the Surveyor. He disagrees, packs up and leaves the site.

The works come to a halt and a few days later the engineer, surveyor and owner meet on site; at some point the lights go on and they realise the North Point error has caused the Surveyor to peg the pile points on the wrong axis.

By now there are several very expensive piles in the wrong place and the owner has no option but to foot the bill. It is a clear case of architectural error. The problem for the owner is that he does not have an Architect. He opted for the cheap plans solution and paid the price.

Now, a year later, as he tackles the foundations of the building for the third time, the owner has come to realise that he can no longer afford to build more than a single storey building as he has buried all his money in the ground with useless strip foundations and wrongly positioned piles.

Sadly it is a familiar story. Few building owners understand the value of Architects and many favour Corruption above Correctness.

Significantly sadder is the fact that this happens in the heart of Johannesburg. 

Can the City of Johannesburg really afford Third Time Lucky construction?

Pedro Buccellato
Architect Africa Online