Abebe Dinku (Prof.) is Construction Materials & Management Chair at the Addis Abeba Institute of Technology’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is responsible for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in Construction Materials and Construction Management at Addis Abeba University.
With a Doctorate in Civil Engineering from the University of Stuttgart (1996) preceded by an MPhil in Civil Engineering from the University of Leeds, UK (1991), Abebe earned an MSc in Construction Engineering (1987) following attainment of a BSc in Construction Engineering from Addis Abeba University.
He is an expert in Cement Concrete Structure Design, and is therefore well-poised to make a detailed and objective analysis of the construction sector in Ethiopia.
Fortune is very pleased to share Abebe’s expertise, particularly in view of the lens now being turned on to the construction industry being scrutinized for quality standards.
SOLIANA ALEMAYEHU, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER, explores the terrain with him in this exclusive interview.
Fortune: What is the most important aspect for ensuring high quality in the construction industry?
AD: I want to start with the human element- practitioners in the construction industry categorized as clients, consultants, contractors, local authorities, financiers and end users.
The client is the decisive element, as the saying goes he is the king because he pays for it. As much as the owner cares about getting the project on time, with budget, he/she has to care about the quality.
Consultant and contractors come next. The consultant is a professional builder that translates the owner’s idea. Therefore the process of selecting a consultant is critical in ensuring quality safety and efficiency. The selection has to anchor on competence and competence only. Local authorities, in Ethiopia’s case, city municipalities are involved from the very beginning – in the selection of consultants as well as in the selection of contractors. They have to ensure that everyone involved is capable and standards are met, as per master plans of the city.
Financiers even as a second degree also make a significant contribution. Their focus is more on locations and economic viability, usually forgetting technical structural stuff. They hedge against the chance for total loss of the property, which is rare. In most cases the property itself is the collateral.
What should clients ask for, what should they look for in gauging competence, while the market is heavily dominated by ‘word of mouth’ culture of recruitment?
AD: As you said reputation plays a big role, or there may be bidding based on competition. Once you assign a consultant, that individual or company will be in charge to decide on matters professionally, with the client’s approval as the client has the last say. Clients enter various contracts but whichever way it is done the principle has to be ensuring that things are done in order and as per industry standards.
You can select a consultant and then the consultant selects a contractor. The role of the consultant is design, construction supervision and contract administration. A consultant is mandatory in any public construction project. In private investments, however, this is the responsibility of the client. Sometimes, even if the law suggests you need to have a consultant, clients do not want to pay or spend money. So instead of employing a professional consultant on a full time basis, they personally, or their relatives do the job of supervision themselves following the system of traditional thinking.
This is very common in Addis, But what they are risking to save a maximum of five per cent of the total cost, might end up costing them everything.
This is the attitude I prefer to call greed and not ignorance which could as well be a possibility but this means there is negligence.
Let’s talk about materials.
AD: Greediness also affects the materials we choose. If you are greedy enough not to employ a consultant or knowingly choose to buy materials with cheaper price tags, there is a high chance that you end up buying compromised quality. And the market is tricky and fluid.
In Addis, if you go to buy sand, a truck of sand 16 cubic metres of sand, you can buy it for 6,000 Br or 10,000 Br, and range between that. The one with 6,000 Br is definitely 30pc clay – mud. The cheaper costs more cement and poses higher risk of danger and loss in general. The same pattern could be identified in reinforcement bars and other materials too.
So you go to the market and buy the cheapest, which is not necessarily compatible with the design specifications. The design specification might be for this one but if you buy cheap quality material of the same size and it’s wrong, you lose.
What took place last week, the collapse of a five-storey building is not new. It just got so much attention. I know about similar incidents in Gonder – a three-storey building, and another three –storey building in Hawassa, a four-storey building in Wolayta in the past couple of years and so on. I am sure this will not be the last in the capital.
How do you evaluate ethics in the sector?
AD: Contractors should be there to genuinely and ethically do the job. Nowadays it is not only about ethics but if one bypasses his/her professional ethics there is also a legal liability that awaits them. Accountability actually has to be shared among all the human elements I mentioned before, of course with varying degree of responsibility.
Evaluation and follow-up too, have to be done ethically and consistently. The practice is so gross you might well come across a case where once a licence is issued there is no follow-up. The owners end up building a G+8 building using a G+4 building permit. This is real in Addis.
So do you think that the checking and grading of materials should be made mandatory in all constructions?
AD: Yes , I have been saying that over the last 15 years in the Ethiopian construction industry professionals should give specifications for materials. Just like columns in concrete blocks we have class A,B and C so when you buy column concrete block the producers should tell you this is class A and this is class B but they don’t. The same goes for all material inputs.
Material investigation is worse in cases of privately owned construction projects than in public infrastructure investments.
Should everyone be alarmed about becoming the next news headline?
AD: Yes. It may unfair to say this to all but I have seen construction sites where the sun is extremely bad, cement is overstored and hydrated scaffolding and safety issues have not been considered. Before this there was an incident where 19 girls died in one day but that never made to the news. The government and the regulatory bodies have to work seriously.
How much emphasis is given to studying construction sites? What are the standards? What are the practices?
AD: We assume the client, who is the financer of the project, does not have sufficient knowledge. He simply employs someone to do his job. Therefore consultants should have access to the site, visit the site, propose the design and prepare the material.
Civil engineering construction projects are unique. For example, the condominium building at Yeka is different from a building at Lebu area, even if it is the same architectural design. This happens due to differences in the type of the soil. The soil at Yeka is red, while the soil at Lebu is black. The same scenario occurs in the regions. Important factors like environment, weather conditions, type of soil and so on matter the most.
Nowadays, rich people go to Middle East countries like Dubai, take a picture of a building there and instruct the architect to design it for them. They go for it without a proper and well planned investigation. Most investigations are made in order to convince the City Administration to get permission. That is a wrong process.
I suggest people need to spend more on the planning and design, for the long term durability of the building and to save a lot.
What you said is a common occurrence. Even within the country, some are trying to buy designs that were made for their friends’ or other people’s houses. What consequences can that bring?
AD: First it is bad since designers are losing intellectual property. Designs are something you pay for and they are created only for specific demand. This commonly happens at district level approving units. There are people in the district, you give them a little money, they automatically change names of already approved designs and stamp their approval.
How can we prepare ourselves? What are the solutions? Who should be responsible?
AD: We should start with ourselves. Academic institutions teach students in a way that the students know their capacity. A new graduate shouldn’t be allowed to handle a whole project by himself without having prior experience.
And every client should do things in accordance with the law.
But, the question is, ‘are the laws and codes sufficient and inclusive?’ Revising old laws and updating codes is necessary at the moment.
Our codes were drafted 20 years ago, which is too old and they do not go with the technology we have now. Even if we don’t manage to update our code annually, we should update it at least every five years.
We have new materials and technologies, so we need to have a new code.
Actually, I heard that the government has drafted a new code, it is in printing phase, I hope we will see it soon and comment on whether it is sufficient or not.
In general we have a long way to go.
Government and stakeholders should spend more money in research and development. I know an institution that make billions in profit but doesn’t even spend 10,000 Br for research.
Universities are increasingly compromising the quality of their programmes. In the programmes I take part in, we used to admit 50 students per year. But nowadays, we admit 50 extra students.
Construction industries should work with universities to bring specialization in the sector. Currently the market is very attractive. People prefer to go private institutions rather than public institutions.
We have various regulations. We have a 25-page Proclamation at the Council of Ministers, some of it is practised? Or does the gap lies in implementation?
AD: It is good to have that proclamation. The thing I hate is when people say the policy is there, the problem is in implementation. If you are not implementing it, then, why do you have the policy? Why not have a policy that can be implemented?
Hence, there should be good communication between those who design the policy and those implement it. Otherwise, copying and pasting policies from Europe is not right.
So it is not implementable?
AD: What I am saying is those policies can be implemented. But you should attract competent people to public institutions. In the absence of that, it will simply be theoretical. You can have it, but you cannot implement it. So why don’t you design your policy based on your existing staff profile. So it is like which should come first – the chicken or the egg?
It works both ways, you can have the policy and implementation could follow; or sometimes you can be dictated by the current situation and you can upgrade it. And the third one is who is designing this policy? Are many able people who can give genuine comments involved? I doubt it. Such kinds of policy should be debated in academic circles. Personally, I consider myself one of the few people who are well-aware of the construction industry, academically and practically, but I have never been consulted. I may not bring any additions to the policy, but it could be nice if it is inclusive. This shows the working relationship between government institutions and universities should be done properly.
Part of the standardization game in the construction sector relates to construction materials. But how much of a role do construction materials play in the quality of construction, construction cost and so on?
AD: A lot. Let me put it in this way. Concrete, for instance is made of cement, sand, gravel, water and some additives. From 70pc to 75pc of the concrete making materials are sand and gravel. So if you have good quality sand and gravel, then, the chance of having good quality concrete is high. If you have poor quality sand and gravel, you will not have good quality concrete. By the way, we checked. We went from Rift Valley to Bahir Dar and Meqelle, and studied how aggregated sand is mined in the various places. What we found is that almost all production of sand is not standardized. The thing is you have sand but when you conduct sieve analysis, according to the rule, the silt content should not be more than five per cent. But we found sand with a silt content of over 20pc, and it is even directly used. This shows sand production should be standardized.
We also went to quarry sites in and around Addis Abeba, Hawassa, Bahir Dar, and we found that there is no standard. If you have two or three trucks of coarse aggregate, you have two or three different quality standards. And this all means, you cannot have standard quality concrete. That is why, in one of my works published ten years ago, I said we should go to standardization. And this should also apply to cement. Provided that you have standardized sand and coarse aggregate, we have found in our research, you can produce standardized concrete with less cement. Our research is published. So the construction sector people have to benefit from the research.
But who should be leading the change?
AD: As an academic institution, we have done it. Our role is to enable our students. With empowered professionals, then, the specification should change. Those who specify – the consultants – should have good knowledge. Most of the consultants follow the traditional way. They just copy and paste specifications designed 30 years ago based on the theories we had then. Their decisions are not research-based.
And then the contractors have their role. Look at the Chinese, we are now able to produce better quality concrete. So the contractors should challenge the specifications made by consultants. At the end, who benefits? The client. They would get quality product, things will completed on time and their construction will be safe.
In any sense, research and development is important. This can be done by the academic institutions, sponsored by the government and professional associations. If you see construction industry in Western countries, such as Germany, England and US, players of the construction industry sponsor research. This is, of course, not to forget the role of government. In fact, they have to establish research institutes.
Government invests about 70pc of its capital budget on infrastructure development, but they don’t have research institutes. It is not fair.
You have mentioned the role of consultants in the construction industry. Should their presence be made mandatory in all types of construction?
AD: Yes, we need to have consultants. We now have consultants to choose the colour of a paint for different parts of our house. Thus, having consultants for different parts of the construction is important.
And even contractors, you need to involve professional contractors. There are different grades of contractors, regardless of their competence, but only qualified contractors should be involved.
Whichever way, we need to involve competent, accountable and ethical consultants. And the clients should be able to disclose their capacity; they have to be honest about it. They should not start a 40 million Br project, while they have only a million Birr in their account. Therein, they should involve financial consultants. They ought to have access to finance, for example, from banks.
And the City Administration should help them, for they create jobs. They should receive proper help from the City Administration as they will generate revenue for the city. The city mayors, deputy mayors, district officials and all in the various hierarchies should help. They should not just say this investor is not doing anything. They instead should help the investor. So should be the banks. Why should investors go and beg them for money. It should be the other way around. I think all way the construction industry works should be overhauled. This is 21st Century.
Where should we start? What can bring substantial difference?
AD: I think, the ministries have to understand the whole issue first. Building condominiums or railways is not an end in itself. They have to first understand the problem of the construction industry. They have to hold open discussions, with stakeholders, and then make rules.
If I were a mayor for example, I would not allow usage of wooden scaffolding for high rise buildings. It is scary, but it is happening. It is not safe, but it is happening. In terms of engineering, no engineer can prove that this [timber scaffolding] is safe. But you get licence from the municipality.
And the responsibility, respectively, goes down to municipalities and professional associations. The licensing, for city level contractors, go to municipalities. The measure should not be just how many trucks you have. A comprehensive standard ought to be in place.
It is only after you appreciate this and discuss with stakeholders that you can make effective rules. We will have to sit together, understand the technology they have in this country is extremely low and design a way. It’s not one ministry or one institution
The federal ministry is in charge number one. When it comes to Addis, the City Administration is number two. It goes down to professional registration too. It should not be only the number of trucks you have or the mixers you have that give you a licence.
The Government has singled out the Land Management Bureaus as the most corrupt public offices within the city. So, how big a role does corruption play?
AD: Pheeew. Corruption!
It used to be a joke, referring to a building that never exists but millions have been spent on. We used to laugh about that thinking we were immune. I strongly feel that it is becoming a reality here and now.
It started somewhere in some region. We had health centre, elementary schools built – money spent but there’s no building. In some universities it was heard a block went missing.
How can they be made accountable?
AD: It is possible. First there must be professional indemnity insurance. All your design provided it was constructed as per your design.
For that I insist that consultants be involved in construction supervision, and contract administration, if possible.
So the money that is gained in construction is more than worth what should be invested in terms of the things you mentioned in making some practices mandatory?
AD: It is. People are making money in construction. You see them building and driving nice cars, they have property. So let them chip in a little bit every year.
Just like the road fund. Whether we like it or not, we pay. For every litre of benzene we buy, we pay a little bit more so that money goes to road fund. And the road fund is expected to do maintenance.
Same thing. Just create a mechanism. All cement factories, they make profit in billions every year. But do they contribute a little bit to run this sector? Why not?
What about those who make corrugated sheets, plastic tiles, metals and glass factories? Government should design something. And they should chip in to establish an institution. That institution will employ the best people, do research, and so on.
That’s the way forward, I think. Because I believe in research.
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