Building collapse won’t stop without strict laws -Odunbaku

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Wilson Odumbaku

Wilson Odumbaku is Chairman, Nigerian Institute of Building, Federal Capital Territory Chapter. In this interview with Francis Kadiri, he discusses the socio-economic implications of recurring building collapse in the country. Excerpts:

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Nigerians are still mourning the death of school children and others who died in a Lagos building collapse. Why is building collapse a recurring decimal, despite the existence of professional institutions like yours?
As a nation, Nigeria does not desire the loss of lives of its citizens. Security of lives and property is the first fundamental duty of government. When you look at the spate of building collapse in the country, it becomes reasonable to say that government has not been responsible enough in terms of averting building collapse. We commiserate with the families of those who lost their lives or limbs or who were affected by the collapse. We understand how the pain of loss of a loved one could continue to linger for many years. Beyond cost, we deeply sympathise with all those who were affected.
One of the problems that are responsible for recurring building collapse is the inability of prosecuting authorities to apprehend and bring to justice, the lawbreakers responsible for allowing weak buildings to endanger lives. For example, government ought to know those who own the collapsed buildings in Jabi, but nothing has been done about it till date. When offenders are not punished, people would continue to break the law because they know they will go scot free. That is the problem we are facing. It is very disheartening that buildings continue to collapse in Lagos, Ibadan and elsewhere in the country.

Ten years ago, the NIOB was optimistic that the National Building Code could solve this problem. Why has the Code not been able to resolve the issue?
I am sure you are aware of the efforts of this Institute to ensure the passage of the Code. The code is a regulatory framework developed by the NIOB, together with other professionals, aimed at addressing various challenges of the sector. I am happy to inform you that the code has been revised, and the revised version has been forwarded to the Federal Executive Council for the assent of the President.
So, the code is not the problem. What we are agitating for is an Act of Parliament that will give us the power to enforce the provisions of the code. The code is a regulatory framework which has provisions that address a variety of problems of the sector. However, there is the need for an Act of Parliament that will give backing to strict enforcement of the code.
The sector needs an Act that will mandate institutional stakeholders within the building construction industry to enforce the provisions of the code. Among the institutional stakeholders are the Nigerian Institute of Building, NIOB; the Nigerian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, NIQs, and the Nigerian Institute of Architects, NIA.
The various built-environment professionals know their roles which are also spelt out in the code. So, it is for respective professionals to enforce it according to their discipline and ensure that quacks stop operating in the industry.
It thus paves the way for respective professionals to apply their judgment in the building production process. The code articulates rules of compliance to standards. If the provisions of the code are enforced, the problem of building collapse will become a thing of the past, because the code has zero tolerance for involvement of quacks in the building construction process.
Because of the absence of compliance checks, the Nigerian construction industry is one of the most deregulated industries in the world, as anybody can just pick a spade and shovel and call himself a builder, civil engineer, etc.

Who is currently enforcing the code?
The code is not being enforced, and it is the desire of professionals to enforce it but we need an Act of Parliament to give us legal backing to enforce the code. We call on the National Assembly to provide the legislation needed to enforce the Act.
The bill for an Act of Parliament to give backing to the enforcement of the code is still before the lawmakers and we are optimistic that the resurgence of building collapse will draw their attention to it, so that they will do the needful.

How would you describe the economic costs of building collapse? How much has been lost in all these years?
Let me give you a realistic scenario. In present time, an average four-storey building in the FCT costs billions. If you look at Lagos and Ibadan, we can place their approximate costs at a billion naira each. So, two billion naira may have gone down the drain in a week.
Nigeria should not be losing its building when the country is in need of more houses. We need to be pounds-wise-and-penny-foolish by laying emphasis on things that are important. Apart from that, the cost of materials has really increased. From our findings, a building that was produced with the sum of N17 billion in 2010 would cost nearly N48bn in 2019. This tells you that the rate of inflation is on the rise, and that huge financial value goes down the drain whenever a building collapses.
Apart from the cost of the building that collapsed, what is even more important is the cost of evacuating the survivors. This is a new area of research for the Institute and we will publish our findings when it is done. As a result of the technicalities needed in evacuation in order to save lives, it is the established constructions companies that are usually called upon to evacuate collapsed buildings. Only few construction companies have the equipment needed to safely evacuate survivors. The Point is that, it is costly to secure their services.
In Malaysia, a doctoral degree holder has kicked-started the quest for reliable information on monetary cost of building collapses. So, The Point is that, we may not be able to give figures, but we cannot deny the fact that billions of Naira had gone down the drain as a result of building collapsing.

While Nigerians await the passage of the bill by the National Assembly, in what ways can the private sector participate in averting building collapse?
Some non-governmental organisations have tried to create awareness; that is, sensitising the public on the need to engage qualified professionals in building construction. The NGO aims to educate the society about how to ensure structural integrity of houses. The Building Collapse Prevention Guild, for example, is a private-sector initiative working with relevant stakeholders, to put an end to building collapse in the country.
Apart from that, professional institutes are doing what they can, to address the problem. You are aware of the effort the NIOB has made over the years. NION continues to engage the press to tell the world to build right by seeking the services of qualified professionals. One of the basic responsibilities of a builder as provided by the National Building Code is to be in charge of building production. This means you must engage a builder to oversee the progress of work on site. Whoever fails to do this, will have a building which structural integrity is questionable.
I am confident that whoever honours the provisions of the code will not be disappointed, because he would enjoy the wisdom and experience of relevant professionals who will ensure that the structure is built with requisite professional merits.
I have observed that the buildings that collapsed are not bungalows, they are huge buildings. It is very surprising that the owners of such buildings actually embarked on such huge tasks without consulting professional builders. The lesson to learn is that whoever desires to build a house should necessarily seek the services of qualified professionals; if not, he faces the tragedy of living in a substandard structure.