Will that structure you’re living in stand the test of time?
How safe if that place called home?
What you need to know:
- Building failures are a common occurrence in most economies, including developed countries.
- NCA notes that of the collapsed buildings so far recorded, 66 per cent were already complete.
On September 23, 2019, a section of a school complex in Nairobi’s Dagoretti area collapsed, killing seven pupils and injuring scores of others. Barely two months later, a six-floor residential building came down in Embakasi, taking more lives, and in mid-June this year, a three-storey building collapsed in Kericho, killing a six-year-old child. Many more such cases go unreported.
Sheila Mwarangu, a senior engineer with Gathara Consulting Engineers, a Nairobi-based civil and structural engineering consultancy firm, says in the years preceding the early 90s, there was more compliance with building laws, bylaws, and regulations. Buildings, she adds, were designed by registered architects and structural engineers who oversaw the construction to the end.
Authorities who approved building plans also ensured the construction was strictly done in accordance with the sanctioned plans. The mid-90s saw an increase in cases of collapsed buildings, which saw the government appoint a committee in 1997 to review building regulations.
“The committee noted that while some of the regulations required revision to incorporate new technology, the main cause of these collapses was lack of enforcement and adherence to regulations,” says Eng Mwarangu.
David Mathu, the General Manager, Construction Research, Business Development and Capacity Building at the National Construction Authority (NCA) concurs that in recent years, there has been outcry over low quality infrastructure, even as the country’s construction industry continues to grow to meet the increasing demand for housing, industrial development and infrastructure.
Kenya requires approximately 200,000 new housing units annually to meet its growing demand, yet only 50,000 are built, meaning that there is a growing deficit of 150,000 units annually, which drives the mad dash to construct.
The new constitutional dispensation, observes Mr Mathu, also encouraged construction across the country, which generally led to more building activity, which is in turn reflected in the volume of failures.
Building failures are a common occurrence in most economies, including developed countries, however, a recent study titled “Research on Failure and Collapse of Buildings in Kenya”, conducted by NCA, points out that while these failures are widespread, their frequency is low in many other countries compared to Kenya.
The research says the first reported case of a building collapse in Kenya was in 1990 when a multistoried structure in Dagoretti tumbled to the ground, killing one person and injuring several others. Consequently, between then and the 2019 incident where part of a school building collapsed, still in Dagoretti area, it documents a total of 87 cases which peaked in 2015 when 21 building collapses were recorded in that year alone.
Thereafter, there have been several more, though there has been a significant drop in their frequency, a factor largely attributed to effective regulation of the industry and capacity building programmes.
NCA notes that of the collapsed buildings so far recorded, 66 per cent were already complete and ready for habitation while 34 percent were still under construction.
“The mechanism of site inspections by local authorities was (consequently) done away with, today construction of buildings is sometimes completed without any official visiting the site. Many buildings, particularly in satellite townships are not designed or supervised by professionals, neither are they erected by competent contractors. In some, collapses are due to defective designs or defective construction,” she says.
Such a case elsewhere would ordinarily result in the site being sealed and preserved until relevant investigations are completed. The case is then extensively investigated from a criminal angle and the parties involved through actions of commission or omission subjected to disciplinary terms including compensating the victims. These cases often result in legal reforms to strengthen building control processes.
But this is rarely the case in Kenya, NCA says that in most cases here, whenever a building collapses, there are minimal conclusive investigations, and due to lack of integrity and weak institutions that regulate the construction industry, many such cases end up without any clear record of actions taken, which emboldens impunity by greedy investors only keen on making quick returns.
In many such cases, the owners of the properties, Mr Mathu points out, often hide behind consultants who in turn indemnify them. And since it is a legal requirement that a developer uses a registered contractor, this removes the developer from direct liability.
“Weaknesses in legal and institutional systems and gaps in law play a role. The developer should (essentially) bear responsibility, but the Physical Planning Act has been too lenient when it comes to reprimanding developers not compliant with the requirement of obtaining a development permit. For instance, section 30 (2) of the Physical Planning Act of 1996 prescribed a penalty of only Sh130,000, while the Physical and Land Use Planning Act, 2019 raises this marginally to only Sh500,000. This is low given the impacts of unregulated construction,” he says.
Paradigm shift needed
The experts opine that uncommitted and unsystematic efforts cannot deliver tangible solutions to the problem of building failures and a paradigm shift in pursuit of good long-term solutions is needed.
To remedy the situation, Mr Mathu recommends ameliorating all regulatory frameworks. Institutional setups, he says, need reengineering to eliminate duplicity and overlapping of development control functions, hence boost coordination, as well as splitting the regulatory functions into building control and development control then assigning them to different jurisdictions, preferably NCA and counties respectively.
NCA should also contract licensed building inspection officers for constant full inspection of construction works, besides, there should be public sensitisation on the importance of reporting construction malpractices and non-conformance, while internal audits and peer monitoring should be strengthened. A joint digital platform for quality assurance between NCA, counties and other involved agencies should also be put in place so that opinions of one department are visible to the others, especially those requiring action taken.
There should as well be compulsory maintenance reports introduced as a prerequisite for occupation certificates (documents which approve occupation and use of a new building). These should be renewed regularly.
Mr Mathu further adds that there should be effective implementation of construction industry coordination framework as articulated in the newly approved Construction Industry Policy (CIP).
“This issue essentially calls for joint responsibility between regulators, professionals, contractors, and developers. While the regulators may shoulder the greatest burden because of their legal mandate, other industry stakeholders also take responsibility and should be empowered and encouraged to self-regulate,” he says.
Custodians building laws
Eng Mwarangu adds that regulatory authorities tasked with ensuring that only sound buildings are erected are the custodians of the building laws, by laws and regulations, therefore, these authorities should ensure that all permanent buildings are designed by structural engineers registered by the Engineers Board of Kenya (EBK), and that all structural designs and drawings are approved by the county government.
“County governments should have competent structural engineers to undertake this task,” she says, adding that all buildings should be built by contractors registered by NCA while all structural works should be done in strict compliance with the approved drawings and specifications.
The project’s structural engineer should, in this case, ensure that all critical stages of construction are inspected and approved before proceeding with subsequent stages. Also, periodic quality control tests on structural materials should be done to ensure that the specified quality is achieved and maintained.
“Results of quality control tests should always be submitted to the county governments for record and suitability of the bearing strata of the buildings should also be determined by doing geotechnical investigations before beginning the construction,” advises Eng Mwarangu.
She maintains that county governments should uphold professionalism and ethics to eliminate areas that create room for corruption which often leads to non-compliance, while planning and construction policies should apply to everyone uniformly and not favour the moneyed.