By Damiete Braide
To curb the menace of incidence of building collapse, the Federal Government has been urged to declare a state of emergency in the built industry. President of Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers (NIStructE), Oreoluwa Fadayomi, gave the advise in an interview with Daily Sun recently.
The soft-spoken engineer also urged the public to hire professionals who would do a better job than patronising quacks. He speaks on what the institute is doing to check building collapse and efforts to stop brain drain in the industry, among others.
Losses incurred when a building goes down
When buildings collapse, the type of losses incurred vary considerably. People work on these sites, especially during when the tragedy occurs. Lives are lost and that is unquantifiable. Invariably, whose lives are these? The common people who eke a living such as the carpenter, the security guard, bricklayers, among others. Hardly do you find or record a loss that kills the owner. Although there has been a situation where the owner who is an architect was involved but invariably, these are the key people whose lives are lost.
When we talk about material losses, that also now depends on the stage of construction. For instance, buildings that are habited or in existence, the building has been completed or rented out either as an office or as a residential place; if luckily no one is there when it collapses, people would lose properties, personal belongings, etc. Imagine someone who has completed his university education and has other certificates, etc and these certificates perish in the collapsed building. Where does he/she start from? These are material losses. Of course, there are losses even to the owner. Perhaps, they borrowed money from the bank, he/she is yet to recoup the money, he/she has interest to pay and all of a sudden, the building collapses. Where does he/she start from? Even when the building concerns government, the Lagos State law says if a building collapses and you lose lives and properties, such a property will be forfeited to the government and that is a colossal loss. You can imagine the efforts it will take for somebody fighting Omo Onile ( land grabbers), fighting touts and securing the buildings, perhaps he gets it third party and all of a sudden, something happens to the building, the losses are so many.
Persistence of building collapse
There are so many reasons. The first is the use of quacks or non-qualified people. The tradition or history of construction in Nigeria dates back to centuries where there have been no formal training and people learn through apprenticeship and as a result, the father is a bricklayer, he takes his son to work everyday and the son becomes a bricklayer too. They call themselves building engineers. It is given the culture or make belief that anybody can do building construction and people will say ‘we have been doing it even before your father was born.’ But that is not the art of building a house and as a result, non-qualified people are there. They keep coming in droves, especially when there is no structured way of getting funds for construction. As a result, anybody may claim to be an engineer; that he wants to build a house because his father has a plot of land and from his savings, he is going to do it bit-by-bit and as a result, he cannot afford to hire a professional to do the construction just to save costs.
Another aspect is when government does not punish culprits. There are professionals; anything could go wrong. It is a chain in the professional circle. If the designer designs badly, if the production of the drawing of the construction itself is defective, an official of the approving authorities may look the other way, especially if he has been compromised.
As NISTructE President, are you not worried?
We are worried. When a building collapses, the next question is, who are the engineers? Everybody knows that it is the structural engineer, but he/she may have nothing to do with the collapse after all. He may not even have known that there were any of such buildings. In fact, the client may have done self-help to do the construction and people die as a result but we cannot be losing lives during building collapse because it is only those who have lost people that will appreciate the loss.
Of course, we have come to realise that even those who are practitioners, moulded to make a building, don’t have the adequate training. When you go out there to check materials, you will find out that they are not made to specific standards, so we need to educate people that are involved in building construction. That is why we have put up trainings even for the lower cadre as a contractor or even as the owner so that they will know the importance of water in the production of concrete-making. Teach them the importance of steel, how to mould the blocks. If you are involved in building construction as a contractor or as the owner, the building developer, you don’t know who is going to be affected when buildings collapse. We are enlightening and training everybody to know the importance of avoiding building collapse.
Sticking to rules
There isn’t any structural engineer worth his/her salt that will not apply the rules. There are regulatory bodies such as Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) and associate professionals like builders; all of these rules and regulations govern the building industry. Some states like Lagos have agencies that are expected to regulate construction and construction processes like Lagos State Building Control Agency (LABCA). Aapart from the planning authorities, when it comes to materials, there is Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) that is expected to monitor all the codes and regulations guiding building industry. It isn’t that there are not enough laws in the country but it is the will to enforce these laws that is the problem. That is why people have not been punished for their failure when structures collapse.
Building codes are there, but they have not been passed into law although they are obsolete. Building codes are expected to be reviewed regularly but one that is being used now was formulated in 1996. It has defects in some areas especially under structures and it is due for review.
Government agencies not doing enough to stop building collapse
Yes, they are not doing enough. If you have square pegs in round holes, then decisions that are taken could be faulty. You may not even know who is supposed to occupy a position because of your limited knowledge. If I’m an engineer and I’m made the Attorney General of Lagos State, I will have to start to learn all over again the rules that govern law and when I I’m making decisions, they will not be as informed as when a trained lawyer heads such an organisation and he can easily fault his colleagues when they bring proposals, recommendations or suggestions that really do not work well.
Sanctions against defaulting engineers
If an engineer’s project collapses, it may not be traceable to him/her but if there is any negligence, such a person should face the law. COREN has a tribunal that deals with professional misconduct. If we find out that an engineer is negligent, such a person will be delisted because the person has violated some of the conditions in engaging or taking the person as our member. Luckily, to date, we are yet to find any of our members found wanting and that is why we are saying people should use our members then such a person can go to bed and that is what we are trying to advocate nationwide.
Stopping building collapse
First of all, there should be the will to enforce and have deterrents for some of these things. If two or three people, no matter how powerful they are, are dealt with, everybody will sit tight. It has reached an alarming state and there should be state of emergency declared by the president and a national summit to discuss the trend. Structural engineers recognised by the institute should be those designing and supervising the completion of construction works in the country like it is done in other professions.
Are financial constraints responsible for patronage of quacks?
No. People may think so, but we all know that it is not so. If you consider what you would lose if you do not do the right thing, you will find out that you are being penny wise and pound foolish. How much will the structural engineer charge? When you finish your design, I can spend N30 million on the building to transform it drastically by putting granites or marbles; it does not add anything to the structural element. The structural element is cheap, the cost of the building at the end of the day, are the finishes that you put there. When you refuse a structural engineer and you are putting all your money on finishings, you are not doing the right thing. If this building is not safe, we can’t stay here. Look at a collapsed building, nobody stays there again whereas if it was structurally designed, the building will be occupied by people.
When you look at the whole cost of the building, the engineer’s fee is less than 1.5 per cent of the cost, whereas when you finish the construction and you want to let it out, the estate agent or the lawyer will collect 10 or more per cent of the rent. It will be wise for Nigerians to know the life of the building, human beings rest in the hands of the structural engineer after God Almighty. The structural engineer must be adequately remunerated over and above any other person because he holds the key to the structure of the building. The owner of the structure must be diligent in deciding who he/she appoints because that is where your money is. If the structural engineer says, I want to collect 30 per cent of the structure to make the building suitable to stay in, it should be given to him. If you don’t appoint a good structural engineer and pay him well, the owner of the building stands to lose everything. It isn’t the cost of the structural engineer but the ignorance of our people and they need to be educated so that they do the right thing.
Stopping brain drain
We make people understand that this country is rich in so many areas and if we are able to train them the way we are trying to do, then it would make them love their job. Engineering is an art and it is not something you can force yourself into because if you love what you are doing and you are trained periodically in different aspects of engineering, then they would have the continued interest with adequate remuneration, they will put in their best.
When I train an engineer, not even an armoured tank can remove what the person has learnt and even if you are not well paid today, tomorrow that individual can become an expert that will be sought after and you can name your fees.
It is important to undergo the necessary tutelage and be grounded in all the areas of what they are doing and there are opportunities here. We need the government to understand that it can only improve the country when it trains Nigerians and there is sustainability. It is not a case where Chinese, Lebanese or Germans come to Nigeria to do engineering work and when they leave after completion of the job, there is nobody to follow up the structure just like what is happening to our refineries. Recently, Nigerian engineers are putting their acts together in making sure that things work properly in the country. If the government continues this way, there is no way the younger ones wouldn’t be taught through these various projects we are doing and can become masters.