The collapse of a five-storey unfinished building in the Summit area of Bole district has caused many to question whether sufficient construction standards are being met. Though the contractor is nowhere to be seen, certain sources indicate that the construction process had serious flaws. With the construction industry having grown exponentially over the past few years, it is imperative that standards are cemented, according to many experts. Although various guidelines have been created, there is a lock of implementation capacity and issues of corner-cutting, which results in poor standards. Though this is the first such incidence in Addis Abeba, many fear that it will not be the last, reports SOLIANA ALEMAYEHU, TESFA Mogessie and DAWIT ENDESHAW, FORTUNE STAFF WRITERS
In the early hours of Wednesday, April 27, a five-storey building collapsed in the Bole district, in an area commonly known as Summit. Fortunately, its construction had not yet been completed and only the ground floor and some of the first floor were occupied.
Two banks, Abyssinia and Dashen, occupied the ground floor, while the floor above was being used as a prayer area. The time of day meant that no one was harmed, but the assets, cash and material of both banks was destroyed.
It may have been a first for Addis Abeba, but it was certainly not a first for Ethiopia, Abebe Dinku(PhD), Professor of Civil Engineering at the Addis Abeba Institute of Technology (AAiT), explained, as he displayed slide after slide of collapsed buildings in different regions throughout the country.
This evidently leads to a hypothesis that the increase in revenue recorded in the construction sector has not been accompanied by an increase in quality. During the last fiscal year, the construction industry generated 57 billion Br, while, having noted the good opportunity for business, the role of financing has increased six-fold in the last decade. It was a little over a billion Birr a decade ago, but currently stands at seven billion Br.
The government expenditure, during the same period, has also kept pace with this increase. Being the highest spender, half of the country’s budget was allocated to infrastructure projects – the majority of which required construction. Construction also accounts for half of the country’s industry.
Sure, out of date regulations, with constant revisions,have also been a feature. The latest of these is the 25-page Building Regulation from five years back. This document has, since 2011, provided procedural steps from planning to dispute settlements.
One commonly bypassed stipulation is the one that demands the attainment of a permit before any kind of occupation. Businesses, most notably financier banks, are seen moving into unfinished buildings. The collapsed building had two banks within it. The building next door, which is of a similar height and state of incompletion, housed a third – a Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) branch.
“After consulting with the city officials, we have stopped renting unfinished buildings,” said Ephrem Mekuria, communications head of the CBE.
There are, however, still a few branches currently located in unfinished buildings, he went on to explain.
“We rent those buildings, with the assumption that they will be completed in a short period of time,” he said.
The Bank has already evacuated its branch located next to the collapsed building, in a building owned by the same person.
The owner of the collapsed building,Alemayehu Taye, owns two other similar buildings within a half kilometre radius – all at the same level.He was angry and agitated when Fortune met him in the vicinity, overcome by a sense of betrayal.
The CBE decided to evacuate because of the fear that the impact of the collapse may affect the structural integrity of its twin building.
The potentially legally responsible person- the contractor of the building – was nowhere to be seen. Many people, who had gathered in the area around the building, assume that he had left the country way before all this mess happened.
“He must have known this would surely follow,” a resident of the area, who makes a living as a daily labourer in the vicinity, told Fortune.
The area was tense, with police circling around, making sure that people did not discuss the matter further. Though the authorities have been on the case ever since, the cause of the building’s demise has yet to be verified. Having seen pictures of the collapse, however, a group of engineers on a lunch break from work immediately noted some construction errors could well have been behind the collapse. Other researchers, who wanted to use the case as a study subject, were not able to access the documents from respective offices.
All an informed person could grasp, while not noticeable to passers-by, was that there were erroneous connections with the reinforcement bars of the columns, which buckled. What many found questionable was the size of the columns themselves.
“An investigation by experts from Addis Abeba University is underway,” an official from the Addis Abeba Construction Permit & Control Authority told Fortune.
No one, so far, has been able put a finger on a specific issue. Though, it is certainly one of procedural steps not being taken. The common practice is that it is the responsibility of the contractor or the building’s owner to have the materials tested and certified.Nobody has any clear information on whether the contractor had done this or not. The lack of any documentation on the building in any office made it more difficult to verify this objectively too.
Regarding the construction materials, they are among the 57 products for which the Minstry of Trade (MoT) has adopted mandatory standards. All of these products and production processes have to comply with this document.
Cotton fibre and cotton yarn, fertilisers, coffee, alcoholic beverages, oil seeds, iron and steel products, matches, bottled waters, edible salt and food additives are among the other products listed.
Among the points stipulated within these standards is the involvement of local government. A building officer, according to the articles, must be notified at each stage of construction and must give approval before its commencement.
The only office that seems to have information, though incomplete, on this collapsed building is the Bole district follow-up and control team.
“We check whether the building lies within its boundaries,”Wondimu Maru, the team’s leader told Fortune. “Also, the contractors inform us five days before filling the pads for the foundation. After this, we check the size of the columns and strength of the iron, before giving the go ahead.”
He also said that they check whether the building has been constructed according to the design.
“We also see the soil examination result,” he added.“If there is a fault, we order them to correct.”
Once the building is completed, the district will then issue a licence to the owner to begin using the building.
An emergency exit, accessibility for people with disabilities, accessibility and limited mirror reflection are also factors, according to him, which the district considers prior to issuing the go ahead.
He did admit, however, that such extensive processes are not always followed, with the collapsed building in Summit being a case in point.
“All buildings should pass through a follow-up,” he said. “But this is not the reality we are living in.”
Soil examination, ownership map and architectural design are areas, according to him, considered
The collapsed building has a license from the Addis Abeba City Government, but has no follow-up document attached to it.
“The owner of that particular building did not submit a follow-up document,” he said. “We did not, therefore, show up on the site for inspection.”
He said that the investigation to determine exactly what made the building collapse is underway. He also indicated that there is a capacity limitation in following up new buildings in the district. There are only five follow-up and control officers.
The districts’ seniors, the City Administration, managed to proces slicences for 4,031 buildings in the same category as the one in Summit, but a follow-up only took place on 2,313.
A consultant in the field expressed his dissatisfaction with their work.
“They never come on time,” said an engineer, who has been working in the construction sector for three decades. “They are more of a hindrance than help.”
He added that he had worked with a few and sincerely doubted their professional qualification.
Mesfin Ababu is a foreman with a college diploma in engineering. According to him, government officials rarely come to check whether the quality is met.
“My task is mainly to look into whether standardised materials are used,” he said.
He has to mechanically sieve what he buys off the market, already informally called grade one, in order to bring it up to the quality he requires.
The use of registered, professional contactors is also stipulated in the regulation. Nevertheless, a common trend in the capital is the emergence of labour-based contracts, where owners supply all the materials themselves and the contractor, if there is one, is only in charge of hiring and managing the labour.
Building owner, Abudulkadir Mohammed, is confident that all these criteria have been fulfilled on his properties. He said that he discusses with the foreman every day to discover any problems that may compromise quality.
“I am on the site almost daily,” he said. “I closely check all materials used.”
But, much is delegated to those that work for him. Atsede Tamiru, a construction worker in her mid-twenties, looks unknowing of the risks, as she fearlessly ascends to the 11th floor using a pulley operated mechanical lift. Wearing her overalls and concrete decorated cap, she looks as energetic as her male counterpart, as they hunch over to lift up a basket full of concrete mix.
She started working as a daily labourer in the construction industry four years ago. And by now, though paid on daily bases, she works as an assistant for those engaged in construction works at a private building located in the Lancha area of Qirqos district, in Addis Abeba.
The building is owned by Abdulkadir Mohammed. She said that she has a little developed knowhow on what a quality construction should look like.
“I know the proportion of concrete and what type of sand is suited to ensure a building’s strength,” she said.
The foreman and owners stay close to the site in order to guide their work, according to her. Yet, she also admits that watering concrete, a necessary daily procedure if the concrete is to achieve its full strength, is often neglected.
She recounted an experience she had two years ago, when a column of a building was tilted. The construction was privately owned, she said, with the owner closely observing the build. As a result of this, the column was demolished and underpinned. Had it had iron bars intertwined tightly together, that could not have happened, she said.
Never mind people who do not have an educational background in construction, Abebe explains, those who do may still not be able to ascertain the quality of construction materials.
“We went around the country,” he said, speaking of his academic trips with his Masters’ class. “We found that almost all the production of sand and aggregate was not standardised.”
Although the permissible amounts of clay in sand is five percent, his class found a series of samples with contents over 30pc. When the sand is presented to buyers of different ilk, they are labelled according to their origins, not physical property.
Abebe argues that the way materials are sold is also erroneous. The markets for steel are one example. The shop owners categorise them by origin: Locally made, imported from Turkey or imported from The Ukraine. He is in favour of classifying them by strength, not origin, so buyers can buy exactly what was specified in the design documents.
“There are even reinforcement bars that can be bent by hand being sold alongside much stronger ones,” said the Contractor.
Even knowing the difference in quality, stingy practices by clients, or those who represent them, are to blame for many issues concerning construction quality, some consultants claim.
“They think they are saving when they go for the cheaper materials,” said Abebe. “But low quality sand requires more cement to make the same strength of concrete – and cement is the most expensive ingredient.”
Consultants and contractors buy insurance based upon the size and design of the building. Ethiopia’s Civil Code also stipulates that both contractors and consultants are accountable for anything that happens to the building for years after completion. Yohannes Abay, a consultant involved in a number of major construction projects, said that the frequent sources of collision between clients and consultants occur when the prior try to substitute the materials with less costly ones.
He brought up the collapse in Summit as an example.
“Such a complete collapse of a building is something unusual,” said Yohannes.
He explained that such rare cases may occur because of a mismatch between the carrying capacity of the type of soil that the building is being constructed on and the actual weight of the building.
One issue is that the owners downplay the benefit of conducting a soil test. The size and depth of the foundation should be done in reference to both factors, but clients sometimes force a downgrade in order to save cost.
The main responsibility to control the quality of a building and to monitor how it progresses rests on the contractor, however.
Abebe adds that the same stinginess in hiring professionals, in both the private and government spheres, negatively affects the industry.
“Owners try to penny pinch on what is less than five percent of the building cost,” he said, referring to consultancy fees. “As a result, they end up losing millions of Birr.”
He adds that the regulation lacks practicality.
“It should either be made to fit the public resources, or public resources should be recapacitated to enforce its stipulations,” he said, stating that he has serious doubts that public offices have the necessary quality or quantity of engineering professionals fit to undertake the follow-up required of them.
Another worrying fact in the construction sector is safety. Current trends put both workers and passers-by at risk. Abebe, who visits many construction sites as a part of his job, recalls timber scaffolding on a multi-storey building that collapsed and took the lives of nine ladies along with it.
He has also come across many buildings that, sometimes at first sight and sometimes after being hired for inspection, he can see will not remain standing for much longer. He warns that this may be Addis’s first collapse, but it will not be her last.
The overhaul of the whole construction industry is way overdue, Abebe said, adding that they have been pleading for that for at least a decade.
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