Building collapses

March 01, 2019

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The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

A RESIDENTIAL building collapsed in Jaffar Tayyar Society in Malir, Karachi, a few days ago, killing four people. It seems the building was self-built by the owner without any proper structural or architectural design, and not examined by any building regulatory authority.

However, there are plenty of such shoddily built structures in the country, particularly in Karachi, that are death traps for their occupants. The creation and management of a safe and secure built environment is one of the government’s primary responsibilities.

Despite legal prescriptions to ensure precisely such an environment, several factors act as impediments. Among them are inefficiency and inadequacy of building control agencies; adulterated construction materials; lack of technical know-how; errors and discrepancies in the supply chain of materials/building services; and indifference of user groups in reporting the defects.

Recent demolitions in the name of removing extensions and illegal constructions have been executed unscientifically. Due to reckless use of demolition machinery, remaining buildings have become weak. Such structurally unstable buildings are nothing short of a ticking bomb. And the numbers of such structures may run into hundreds, if not more.

Structurally unstable buildings are a ticking bomb.

Close observation of some building colla­pses reveal recurrent patterns of violation of fundamental zoning principles and incom­plete construction. Informal settlements have a history of gradual expansion and growth. Land development, usage and control are affected by the local power structure.

For example, in settlements close to affl­uent neighbourhoods, the conversion of sin­g­l­e­-storey construction is being swiftly replaced by eight- or even nine-storey buildings. Cons­t­­ructed without technical advice on plots ranging between 80 to 200 square yards, these structures are inherently flawed. Poor quality foundations, inferior contracting pra­ctices, construction in many stages, shoddy plumbing and electrification fixtures and installations make such buildings unfit for human habitation.

Most of them are built with a tripartite partnership of landowner, contractor and investor. The three determine the internal distribution of rentable space after cons­truction is completed. To maximise profits, the contractor resorts to cutting costs in inputs such as design or construction material while the investor lends less capital to earn maximum on his share. The landowner turns a blind eye in anticipation of additional accommodation to rent out for extra income.

Since more and more folks from working classes wish to reside close to the city centre or populous neighbourhoods, the rental demands of such buildings remain subs­tan­tial. These practices are common in many Karachi neighbourhoods. It is only after a disaster that some regulatory exercises are carried out — which soon end.

Planned neighbourhoods also face such pro­­blems. The mayor and other local fun­c­ti­o­naries have been critical about divided res­p­onsibilities of development control in the city. More than 13 agencies that own and manage land in Karachi claim to hold that prerogative without any coordinating mechanism.

The Sindh Building Control Authority is a major agency for the bulk of neighbourhoods under local and provincial jurisdictions. Federally controlled and constituted bodies such as cantonment boards are independent of the local authorities. Similarly, other autonomous landowning agencies such as port authorities are not controlled by the conventional building control practices.

The intentions of agencies vary. One aut­h­ority discoura­ges tall buildings for some time; the other issues permits for their unabated develop­ment. In the same neighbourhoods, different building pr­­ofiles are found which create anoma­lies in real estate development, management and transactions.

A safe built envi­r­onment can only be ensured if a trained and competent cadre of built environment regu­lators is inducted in these public age­n­cies. Sound understanding of building design, execution processes, construction/ structural design codes, by-laws/ regulations and cons­tr­uction are common essentials. From building inspectors and building controllers to the chief executive, a specific type of background know-how and qualif­ications is essential. Arch­­itects, civil engineers, town planners and diploma holders in the relevant field are normally suited for the job after some kind of basic training.

Documenting and reporting mechanisms are also non-existent in terms of land and development control. Despite improved satel­lite photography/imagery and GIS, there is no annual report/ study on land use change, en­­c­r­oachments, densification or infrastr­uc­tural situations. If one asks for a comp­reh­en­sive map of the recently executed building dem­o­litions, the concerned agencies may find it dif­­­ficult to produce it. Unless departmental cap­acities are developed, ensuring a safe liv­i­ng habitat for all will remain an elusive goal.

The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2019