As yet another one bites the dust, the blame game makes a predictable return

Above: Rescue teams at the scene of the collapsed building in Makongeni, Nairobi, last week. Everything, apart from the number of casualties, time and place, could have been predicted by anyone who has keenly studied Kenya’s badly policed construction industry. PHOTO | NATION

What you need to know:

  • Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, responding to claims that the building was being constructed on a wetland, on Monday said he had constituted a team to probe the matter. The team is expected to, among others, “establish the approval processes of the structure”, said Kidero.
  • If an earthquake struck Nairobi today, the economic cost of the ensuing destruction is estimated at Sh316 billion.
  • That would cause a 15-year development setback, according to the study, which also found that close to 100 per cent of buildings in low-income neighbourhoods of Nairobi were put up using sub-standard materials.

The news that yet another building had collapsed in the country last week sounded like a sequel to a never-ending Hollywood movie. Everything, apart from the number of casualties, time and place, could have been predicted by anyone who has keenly studied Kenya’s badly policed construction industry.

Soon after news trickled in that four people had died and several others injured after a five-storey building still under construction collapsed at around 3am last Wednesday near Makongeni Police Station in Nairobi, the government, as it always does, mobilised a team to the scene and started talking tough.

Lands and Housing Cabinet Secretary Charity Ngilu said her officers would launch a crackdown on developers violating regulations and building codes. “The government will not relent in its fight against malpractices in the construction sector because clearly a violation of the standard guidelines of construction is to blame for the frequent collapse of buildings in Nairobi and other urban centres,” she told reporters.

CRIMINALLY RESPONSIBLE

“Kenya has developed a robust policy and legal framework to govern the construction sector and any investor who violates the law to develop poorly designed structures will be prosecuted.”

Ngilu also warned that any official who approves such buildings would be fired and held criminally responsible, and that “architects and planners who fail in their oversight duty will face the law, and risk having their licences revoked”.

Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, responding to claims that the building was being constructed on a wetland, on Monday said he had constituted a team to probe the matter. The team is expected to, among others, “establish the approval processes of the structure”, said Kidero.

“The probe report will also make appropriate recommendations on the measures to be taken, including criminal proceedings, on past and present officers responsible for the collapsed structure.”

That, however, is no consolation to the four families who, as the rest of the country celebrates Christmas today, are preparing to bury their loved ones.

And, even so, around the city, and indeed other parts of the country, construction of evidently badly designed buildings continues unabated, sometimes right under the nose of authorities and other people mandated with the responsibility of ensuring standards.

The consequences, often, are quite fatal. The Makongeni tragedy was just one of several other calamities that point to everything that is wrong with the industry. Often, such pointers are in the form of buildings caving in while under construction.

In February 2012, a two-storey building that was under construction collapsed in the Mwiki area of Kasarani, Nairobi, injuring three people — including its owner — as workers were laying the second floor slab. Eyewitnesses told the Daily Nation at the time that the contractor seemed to be in a hurry as it had taken less than three months to build two floors.

Four months later, six people died and 10 escaped with injuries after a partly occupied building that was still under construction collapsed in Mlolongo. In June 2011, six workers lived to tell the tale after a five-storey building collapsed in Nairobi’s Lang’ata estate. The incident came barely a week after another building collapsed in Embakasi, killing four people and injuring 14.

A year before, on October 2010, 16 people who were working on a building whose owner had been ordered to demolish it by a Kiambu court died after the structure collapsed, entombing them.

FLOUTING RULES

The tragedy occurred about 100 metres away from where another building, also under construction, had collapsed, killing 17 people and injuring several others at about a similar time the previous year.

And in November 2006, another building under construction collapsed at Nyamakima area in downtown Nairobi, killing 10 and injuring 70 people.

As the government blames developers for flouting rules with promises to carry crackdowns every time a building collapses, experts are now accusing the state of failure to enforce existing regulations. That failure, the critics say, is made worse by corruption and sheer laxity in the corridors of power.

Francis Gichuhi of A4 Architects has been documenting collapsed buildings in Nairobi since 2011, and says the reasons have largely remained the same.

“The problem lies with government enforcement at both national and local levels of governance,” says the architect. “Developers are not forced to use registered consultants, architects, engineers and contractors, so anyone with a little knowledge in the industry can seek a contract and get it.”

For the Makongeni tragedy, Gichuhi says the most likely cause of the collapse was poor design. The building stood on a strip-type foundation instead of a raft-type, despite it being located in an area that was visibly soggy, he explains.

Gichuhi also reckons that most investors, in an effort to cut down costs and the time used in construction, use shortcuts that eventually turn their developments into death traps.

“County construction by-laws, for instance, require a developer to publicly display the name of the architect, engineer, contractor and owner at the site, but in almost all upcoming buildings this is not being done,” he says.

“When this does not happen, then most likely the developer did not use approved consultants at any time for the project, or omitted some of them, because if anything happens these are the people who should be held responsible.”

A recent report on the safety of structures in Nairobi found that three out of four buildings in the capital would be extensively damaged in the event of an earthquake.

The report by Questworks, a design and engineering firm that studied Nairobi buildings for three years, faulted contractors for using less-than-required cement and steel. Architects and engineers too were faulted for failing to supervise and verify the quality of works.

“The non-destructive test (NDT) results suggest that most concrete used in Nairobi lacks required compressive strength,” says the study, which tested 254 samples from 24 construction sites for office buildings, churches and universities.

By cutting down on steel, the study found that contractors were pocketing up to Sh29,800 per 100 square metres of construction and Sh27,100 for cement on a similar measure. Overall, this accounted for up to six per cent of the overall project budget.

They seem to have been vindicated by the Makongeni tragedy, where rescue and recovery efforts were painfully slow as rescuers were forced to use hand tools because heavy parts of the building disintegrated whenever earthmovers attempted to lift them, exposing those trapped under the rubble to the risk of more harm.

Construction experts at the scene said that was because of very poor cement-to-sand ratio.

ENSUING DESTRUCTION

The study by Questworks also found that the construction industry in Kenya lacks incentives for engineers and architects to make them properly supervise construction, thus creating an environment that allows contractors to use shortcuts.

“Design work on average takes six months and accounts for 75 per cent of the professional fees while supervision takes two years yet accounts for 25 per cent of the fee,” the researchers wrote.

“This payment plan results in architects and engineers spending more time looking for design work as opposed to supervising ongoing projects since it pays more and takes less time.”

If an earthquake struck Nairobi today, the economic cost of the ensuing destruction is estimated at Sh316 billion. That would cause a 15-year development setback, according to the study, which also found that close to 100 per cent of buildings in low-income neighbourhoods of Nairobi were put up using sub-standard materials.

The findings go contrary to official reports from the Nairobi County government that indicate that above 80 per cent of the buildings in the capital have been constructed using concrete that exceeds the required design strength.

As expected, county officials were not happy with the study, with Governor Evans Kidero claiming it was not based on correct information and the data presented was “at best alarming”.

To solve this standards problem, John Maritim, a construction consultant, says, requires a joint effort between property developers and the government agencies.

“It is common knowledge that developers most of the time face frustration when seeking necessary approvals from county governments, resulting in shortcuts,” he says.

“Developers also get into a project with a fixed mind, especially on the amount of money they want to spend on a project, causing them to totally disregard the advice given to them by professionals.”

The estimates of a construction project, he says, should be done by a quantity surveyor after the building plans prepared by a licensed architect and registered structural engineer have been approved by the municipal council.

“Most of the developers seek advice from a single person who in most cases is not qualified but acts as the architect, quantity surveyor, structural engineer, residential engineer and contractor, and the result is a death trap instead of a warm, safe home,” he says.

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.