By Eng Ben Ssebbugga Kimeze, FUIPE
In the last two years, I have been inspecting some building sites to keep myself and my mind active. I have observed that there is a lot of laxity in the way building construction is being done in the country. There is a general decline in construction practices. There is hardly adherence to construction specifications, design drawings and bills of quantities, if at all they were there in the first instance. This laxity has led to poor standards and in some cases the collapse of buildings and even loss of lives and property.
This article highlights some of the common problems found on building construction sites which have adversely affected the quality of buildings and in some cases given rise to disasters like maiming and loss of life, giving the relevant professions, especially the engineering fraternity, a negative image.
The construction sector is a big employer of both skilled and unskilled workers. Any building site attracts dozens of workers. However, the sector is not properly structured. Engineers, architects and quantity surveyors have left the real nitty-gritty of the construction in the hands of unqualified workers, which has resulted in many problems.
Construction is going on without effective supervision. The architect and the engineer who design the buildings are hardly seen on site during construction. There is hardly anyone competent on site to interpret the design and drawings. This is left to foremen who by and large have limited technical training and in most cases only trained on the job.
The people constructing the buildings are not technically, let alone professionally, qualified. They have hardly been to a technical institute. A holder of an ordinary diploma in building and civil engineering is a king on the site! Senior engineers are not interested in these small building sites promoted by the private sector because there is not much money here. They are attracted to large public works projects where there is more money and they are paid much better. Unsupervised junior construction staff are likely to compromise construction regulations and quality supervision.
On most construction sites, there is no formal contractual arrangement of ‘employer/owner and contractor’. There are no contractors; so the duties of the contractor are in effect executed by the owners. Moreover, since there is usually no supervisor, the employer/owner/promoter is the contractor and supervisor at the same time. This causes a serious conflict of interest. In a few cases where contractors are engaged, they are labour-only contractors. In this case, the so-called contractor is simply a foreman responsible for managing the workforce on a daily basis. He has to carry out planning of the works and schedule the workforce with the approval of the owner who retains the principal role of mobilising inputs (materials and funds) for the building works. As an example, should the owner buy poor quality materials, the foreman finds it difficult to reject them, thus causing eventual poor quality, shoddy work, and unsafe buildings which put the lives of the future occupants, let alone the workers on the ongoing project, at stake.
The quality of construction materials is not ensured. The construction of storeyed buildings is completed without a single test on any materials – the soil, the cement, the aggregates, the concrete, the steel, the bricks, the timber, etc. There is very little knowledge in this important area. Employers and contractors have no knowledge of laboratory testing facilities, where properties of materials can be determined. Poor construction materials are the fundamental causes of failure and collapse of structures.
Formwork and shuttering are often of poor quality and at times removed before the concrete has attained the minimum strength required. There are problems associated with batching for concrete production -- mixing, placing and vibrating the concrete within the stipulated maximum setting time and curing. There are examples of collapse because of failure to adhere to good concrete technology.
Occupational safety, health and environmental issues are not handled in accordance with laws and regulations regarding the construction industry. For example, when builders are not given appropriate working clothes, helmets, gloves and boots, their safety is compromised.
Local governments issue approvals of architectural and structural plans, but thereafter hardly monitor the building works so as to give sectional approval at key milestones. These authorities may be so poorly staffed or they simply fail in their duties to monitor the building of the works under their jurisdiction. This compounds the problem of compliance with building regulations, where sites are managed by junior staff.
The list can go on but let me make some few suggestions of the way forward.
As professionals, engineers, architects, quantity surveyors and any other relevant professionals need to take interest in building construction regardless of money. We should not leave the sector in the hands of unskilled workers.
Professionals and relevant authorities should reach out to local governments and sensitize them on building standards, the building control regulations including occupational, safety, health and environment (OSHE) requirements and the need to enforce them.
Central Government should consider providing technical assistance, appropriately staffed with planners, architects, engineers and quantity surveyors to local governments which are currently ill-staffed to manage monitoring the building function. Similarly, professional bodies and regulation authorities in the construction industry need to be strengthened to monitor construction.
The 8M Construction Forum has provided a valuable platform for exchange of ideas in the construction industry. It may further be useful to physically meet periodically and discuss some topical issues.
I hope this short article has raised some awareness and will stimulate discussion first within the 8M Construction Forum, and the engineers’ and architects’ fraternities and other consultancies, and later the Government itself, so as to address the shortcomings highlighted.
Ben Ssebbugga Kimeze is a Fellow of the Uganda Institution of Professional Engineers, a Past President of the Institution, and a Registered Engineer with the Uganda Registration Board