“Government is to blame! That was audacious Engr. Hyacinth Eze, the Chief Executive Officer, (CEO) of Lagos-based Hycom Engineering Nigeria Limited. The Enugu State indigene and member of COREN, was reacting to repeated cases of building collapse in Nigeria, including the recent occurrence in Abuja, where actual casualty figure is still a subject of controversy.
The titled Chief, who was in the state on a business trip, in this chat with CHUKS EZE, identified a combination of factors as being responsible for reoccurring cases of building collapse in the country stressing that they include, lack of commitment by government, carelessness, circulation of inferior or adulterated building materials in Nigerian markets, and infiltration of quacks and impostors in the country’s built industry, among others.
He urged the government to ban a group he called ‘developers union or association,’ stressing that it comprises of mediocre and non-professional engineers.
Building seems to have become an all-comers affair in the country; is that a normal phenomenon?
It is not. Engineering is purely a technical, professional affair. It has norms and procedures which must be obeyed during the process of carrying out professional activities.
For instance, when you talk of engineering construction, as regards building, it is about the mechanics of soil, the mechanics of fluid; it is about the strength of building materials, which a person that is not trained in Engineering (or what we call the quacks), cannot understand.
So, just being able to read mere working drawing or having money to fund real estate development does not make one an engineer or a builder. Building construction starts from soil investigation and when that is not done to determine the bearing capacity of the soil, before commencing the construction, then problem begins at that stage. The truth is that several buildings in the country today are standing on inadequate foundation.
Another thing of note is that concrete is not just about mixing of cement, sand and granite; it goes beyond that and yet, we see the so-called developers engaging and repeatedly awarding construction jobs to mediocre so they can cut corners and cut cost. There is what we call water and cement ratio.
The compressive strength of concrete has to be known because inadequacy of any material or measurement poses danger in construction. But because the mediocre are ignorant of that, sometimes, you find concrete grade that is 25, and at 28 days you check the compressive strength only to get 7 N/mm Square when it should be 25 per mm square andthat is dangerous! It is disastrous for people to just dabble in and start doing engineering practice just because they feel they can read drawings because it is a very complex profession.
What is responsible for the incessant cases of building collapse in Nigeria and what is your take on the recent Abuja case?
The development is traceable to a combination of factors, but the government takes lion share of the blame. And as regards the Abuja incident, remember that I had raised the alarm about two or three times about the manner in which I had witnessed people build houses in parts of Abuja.
That was around 2012 and about 2014. Since then, there have been a couple of reported sad occurrences there. One of the reasons for repeated reoccurrences of building collapse in Nigeria is poor or absence of sincere official regulation.
Government has not shown adequate commitment and, they are to blame as far as I am concerned. Ineffective regulation of the built industry had created wide windows which had caused continued incursion of the so-called developers and intruders, who lack the requisite engineering professional knowhow. All manner of people have infiltrated the built industry answering engineers.
And owing to that, the core experts – engineers, architects and certified builders no longer do priority projects because the quacks and mediocre, now short-change. So, anyone that feels he has got small money becomes a developer, enters the industry and starts building, even high rise structures, without engaging certified professionals.
Another reason is selfishness. People always want to optimise property by trying to have a lot of units in one building. However, it is not a case of just aiming at owning a storey or more building structure rather, it is about being able to afford adequate materials that are supposed to be used for such structure.
But the quacks does not consider that; they are always ready to collect peanuts from whoever that calls himself developer and does his bidding. They have no knowledge about, or care to know about what is called soil bearing capacity, adequate materials or measurements that apply to different structure or climates among others.
Most times you find somebody using drawing (building design), for a house that is built in a particular location and take it to another distant location to replicate the same building without considering the bearing capacity and integrity of the soil, whether it would be able to carry the same structure. No professional would allow such a thing except quacks who would gladly oblige without any hesitation.
Another issue is the influx of inferior or substandard materials, and their patronage and usage by the mediocre, or just outright disregard to standard regulations. I have witnessed several sites around the country, including the South East, Abuja and Lagos, where people use reinforcement that is supposed to be used for steel of dashed ring but they use it for main bars.
The building regulation is that, if for instance, you are doing any one storey building, you should use at least minimum if 16mm for all columns. But you see people using 8mm to do column, without considering the appropriate load for the structure to enable them determine the characteristic strength of the steel they are supposed to use.
In some cases, you find people using reinforcement that is supposed to be used for bungalow to do three, four and five storey building. That is a major reason that buildings collapse here and there. And to make matters worse, most of the steel reinforcements in the market are substandard, which is another big concern. Another problem is called alteration.
That is a situation where you have a structure – maybe a bungalow – and someone would just wake up one day, or after the facility is sold to another person, the new owner decides to remodel it to a story, two or more story building.
That is very dangerous, a time bomb waiting to explode, due to inadequate or absence of what we call punching sheer, in columns. So, when the pillar bears load, it would punch, either soon after or over time and the building would carve in. These are some of the major causes of all the building collapses here and there. And you ask: where are the regulators?
What is the way out of all that?
The advice is that government must be committed to enforcing strict adherence to engineering regulations and ensure that defaulters are punished without mercy. Government must also put in place measures to compel people to test their building materials in the laboratory before using them in their sites.
And for that to be possible, government must also show more commitment by providing adequate laboratory centres across major cities or local government areas in the country.
This could be done through Private public Partnership (PPP) or any other workable arrangement. Government can also give franchise to people that are willing to open certified laboratories, or even partner with universities, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and other relevant experts such as Council of Regulation of Engineering Profession of Nigeria(COREN); and the Nigeria Society of Engineers (NSE), to ensure strict adherence to official professional building standards.
Why should we appear to be retrogressing, in the 21st century, in the build profession rather than progressing? It is saddening to observe these days, how several roads, bridges and building constructions start failing almost as soon as they are completed, while several much older structures remain subjects of reference.
For instance, a couple of years ago, in Enugu, the state government had to import special equipment to crush some buildings which had to give way for new public structures after they defied all attempts to demolish them, especially the concrete floors and pillars.
They were houses that were built around first and second republics. But if you should dare touch many of the new houses across the country today, with the smallest hammer around, you would shudder at what the result would be. It is a known fact today that most landlords across the country now bar tenants from using the mortar to save their building from failing.
How would you describe the methodology of control and regulation, because some of the agencies that you just mentioned have been there; or are you inferring that they are somewhat lame?
That is another big issue and that was why I earlier said that government was to blame for repeated incidences of building collapse across the country. The government must show sincere and adequate commitment in that regard. COREN, for instance, is meant to supervise all manner of construction in Nigeria but do it does not have a blanket power to operate.
Some government agencies still interferes one way or the other along COREN’s operational paths. You find, for instance, a quantity surveyor, building projects, which is wrong. So, I would not say that COREN is lame. They are trying but I think that they lack adequate powers and funding to operate effectively.
So, the collapse incident is not about poor training of Nigerian engineers or their inability to measure up to current professional trends?
Nigeria has many world class engineers who can compete in global practices. I can assure you that many of us have the capacity to do over 25 storeys building in a manner than could compete with best standards anywhere in the world. Even as an employer, years back, I was involved in the construction of the popular Coscharis Plaza, in Lagos.
That was the first high-rise building that ii was involved in, as a project engineer, and that is why I always eulogize the Chairman of Coscharis Group, Chief CosmasMaduka for showing enormous faith in local engineers. The property was initially owned by Adig Insurance Company Ltd. But, when Chief Maduka bought it over, he gave the project to Galcon Engineering, a top-flight engineering company in the country, where I was working at the time.
And we did a clean seven storey building which is still standing at No 1 AdeolaOdeku in Allen Avenue, since early 90s. Our problem, like I have said repeatedly, is lack of encouragement or free hand to operate. We do major designs and construction but you cannot have reference until you are allowed to do one or two things.
Even the power issue that we have been battling with as a nation, our engineers are ready to go into that sector but we lack that opportunity or official encouragement to do that. So, government should recognise professional bodies in the country and support them with adequate funding and enabling environment to thrive.
Kunle Awobodu, onetime President of an agency called Building Collapse Prevention Guild of Nigeria, had stated the reason for poor regulation was because government lacks the manpower to effectively regulate Lagos State, talk more of the entire country. Is that the case?
The case is that in Lagos, the state government is doing a lot in regulating the built industry and they deserve kudos for their efforts, though there is still room for improvement. The State has a special material-testing body that comprises of a team of professionals who are equipped with modern hi-tech equipment. They visit construction sites to carry out tests on building materials and structures.
The agency has been regular unscheduled guests at our project sites in Lekki and other parts of the state. Once you begin the foundation, you would see them and they would keep paying unscheduled visits to the site, at various stages of the construction until the project is completed. Where else does such happen in the country?
Before you cast your concrete, they will take samples of whatever you are casting, you pay, and they would take it to the laboratory to carry out what we call destructive test to determine the integrity and accuracy of what you are doing, at the ground beam and slab.
They also inspect the tensile strength of your columns. They would cut your reinforcement and take it to the lab and check whether the iron is adequate to take the tensile strength. With all those checks, and the inherent official sanctions, everybody is very careful to avoid failing the destructive test because such failure attracts outright pulling down of the entire structure.
But what I do not know is whether they replicate that drive on smaller residential buildings and constructions in the state. However, if all other states, including the FCT could emulate Lagos State, in a non-compromising manner, then the future would be bright for Nigeria as regards the built industry.
But unfortunately, we have this teething problem of compromise, cover-up in high and low places and politicisation of all issues. That is why little or nothing is ever heard after the usual parade of cameras and government officials at scenes of major building collapse incidents, like the recent Abuja case. We all know about the synagogue and Akwa-Ibom church incidents, as well as other previous incidents that went down the drain or remained ever inconclusive, as the case may be.
What is your final take on the issue?
My candid advice is that the Federal Government must take very drastic and tough measures over the issue of continued building collapse tragedies in the country. Government should empower and equip regulatory agencies to start monitoring and examining all construction activities stage by stage, especially when it has to do with suspended floor.
Periodic integrity test should also be carried out on existing buildings especially storey buildings. There must be serious accreditation and certification before anybody can go to site to do any construction and the situation where everybody wants to own an engineering company, whether trained or not, should be stopped, just as it is in education where one must be a certified professional before one is allowed to establish and run a school.
Also, any firm that operates against the official norms should have its certificate revoked. And most importantly, government should, as a matter of urgent necessity, disband the so-called ‘Estate Developers Association’ because its membership does not comprise of professionals in the built industry.
Such group should not be allowed to exist in the country because their activities endanger lives of citizens. It is said that a medical doctor can only kill one person at a time, but when a building collapses, many lives are put on the line.