Lateef O. Onundi is a Professor of Structural Engineering at the University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID). In this interview, he gives reasons why many more buildings may collapse across the country.
There have been cases of building collapse in some states, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). In 2019 alone, more than 20 buildings have collapsed. What do you think is the major cause?
There have been many building collapse incidences in 2019 in the FCT, Enugu, Jos and Lagos, where one claimed the lives of an entire family of seven. Unfortunately, many more buildings may still collapse because they are not constructed in accordance with the country’s guiding principles for approval, design and construction. These scenarios are similar to the disobedience of many traffic rules that lead to many accidents.
The building industry is regulated by scientific axioms, principles and laws. When these are violated, serious consequences occur. It is these consequences that have led to accidents of building collapse.
Unless we start complying with appropriate standards for buildings before erecting them, engaging qualified, registered professionals and also strictly ensuring that appropriate materials are used and the technological methods of erection and construction are also strictly complied with this unfortunate situation may continue to rise.
Therefore, I am calling on various disciplines of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), not just the building industry, to start working with the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and the Senate to produce local codes of practice and appropriate by laws that will regulate all aspects of approval, design, construction, maintenance and repair of building facilities and services in the country.
There are a lot of quacks who are almost overshadowing professionals in the building industry; what can be done to put a stop to this?
Our survey of building collapse between 1971 and 2016 shows that 7.3 per cent of the incidences were caused by the activities of quacks. Private developers of building projects generally assume it is a waste of money to engage qualified professionals because they want to complete their building projects at the lowest possible cost. Unfortunately, they consider lower cost as first priority over safety.
By all rational structural principles and policies, safety comes first before economy. If it is not safe, no optimisation analysis suffices.
Therefore, it is very unsafe and unlawful to engage people that are not properly trained and approved by the regulatory authorities to build in any part of the world; not just Nigeria.
It is, however, heart-warming that recently President Muhammadu Buhari graciously signed the COREN Act Amendment Bill 2019 to broaden the powers of COREN; of prosecution of infractions, regulating industrial training of engineers, capacity building of local content in the Nigerian engineering industry and the investigation of engineering failures.
Do you think all the professionals are well trained and qualified?
Nigerian engineers and our leaders are not telling other stakeholders: government, private individuals and the international community, the realities of equipment deficit that we suffer either in the training of our technical, engineering and technological institutions, or those essential laboratories, instruments, equipment, light and heavy machinery required by the practicing engineers to enhance their knowledge of problems and improve their productive capacities.
What is the solution to building collapse in Nigeria?
Efficient and functional laboratories must be provided in the technically related tertiary institutions, in the FCT, state and local government areas. It is also necessary to encourage improved technical training for skills and knowledge development of professionals in the building industry. It is even disturbing that government projects like public buildings also collapse under construction. Even worse is the absence of a viable national code of practice. This means that 8.8 per cent faulty designs noted in our data on collapsed buildings could have serious implication on the level of competence of some of the professionals handling public projects. That is why corporate and public buildings collapse is as high as 40 per cent.
The professional institutions: COREN, NSE, Nigerian Institution of Civil Engineers, (NICE), etc. and SON are therefore requested to be more serious at checking the level of enforcement of international codes of practice or develop local equivalents for building materials vendors for standardization and quality control. Perhaps there is a need by SON, in collaboration with the Nigerian Building and Road Research Institute (NBRRI) and the Ministry of Works to create two important units: Collapse Building Prevention Unit (CBPU) and Collapse Building Investigation Unit (CBIU) at the project approval departments at the federal, state and local government levels.
It is advocated that before a project is approved, CBPU must look at possible factors that can cause three-storey buildings and above to collapse with an aim to preventing them. Apart from this, a database of the properties of soil, blocks, concrete and steel reinforcements characteristics and strengths at appropriate levels are created for quality control and reference for analyses in case of structural problems.
Similarly, CBIU should be charged with the responsibility of investigating all cases of building collapse at all levels.
Also, to prevent errors, before approval is given for all three-storey buildings and above, it is vital to make sure that they are checked by a committee of professionals after the design is completed by a consultancy firm; instead of limiting the design responsibility to only one consultancy firm.
Expatriates most times win contracts for bridges and high rise buildings and they have not recorded the same level of collapse cases simply because they are well trained and they have good laboratory facilities and equipment to support what they are doing.
In fact, some of them use their countries’ codes to do the design and even build. Therefore, the codes, enforcement laws, continuous improvement supervision, good laboratory facilities and equipment to support what we are doing may be the actual solution to this worrisome national problem; if not, buildings will continue to collapse.