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Are you living in a deathtrap?

By Peter Muiruri | January 29th 2015

When Jane Njeri went house-hunting for her first house in Nairobi a year ago, she was attracted by the Thika Super-highway.

To her, the road, completed about three years ago, offered the perfect commute to her job near the city centre. She got in touch with a housing agent who took her to various vacant houses along the route.

Finally, Njeri settled on what she describes as an ideal home in Kasarani for a single girl.

It was a one-bedroom house in a five-floor apartment block that had what she describes as “excellent finishes”. “The tiles were beautiful and the doors and wardrobes were made of mahogany. The kitchen was spacious, with enough sockets and drawers. The Sh11,000 monthly rent was worth it,” she says.

With her quest for a new house satisfied, Njeri did not even bother to find out who the building’s owner was since the agent was always available to handle any queries.

“A few things had been broken when I moved in. Most of the light fixtures were not working and a tap was faulty. The agent arranged for all the repairs. I didn’t see the need to see the owner or find out who he was,” she says.

Like Njeri, many people are attracted to the aesthetics, location and functionality of a house. While many can recite the safety features of the vehicle they drive, rarely do they consider whether the building they live in is safe for habitation.

I asked Njeri if she had heard of or seen an occupation certificate that certified the building as ready and safe for occupation. “Occupation certificate? Never heard of that!” she answered.

The issue of safety in the building sector has been brought to the fore by the recent collapse of two buildings in the city. Professionals, Government officials and commentators agree that gross human errors resulting in structural defects were to blame.

This is despite the fact that the country has no shortage of professional and statutory bodies charged with regulating the the construction sector.

Professional bodies

There is the Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK), Board of Registration of Architects and Quantity Surveyors of Kenya, Engineers Board of Kenya, National Construction Authority, Land Surveyor’s Board, National Environment Management Authority as well as the 47 county governments.

Why then, do buildings continue to collapse? According to AAK Chairman Waweru Gatheca, it boils down to one word – greed. He says a developer’s first priority is to make money through the sale or renting of units.

That, he adds, should not ordinarily present problems were it not for the fact that a few bypass the use of professionals to cut costs.

“The role of an architect is to design and co-ordinate the activities of other professionals in the project such as engineers and quantity surveyors... Bypassing any of these people could ‘save’ a developer some money but with catastrophic results,” he says.

An architect also submits the design to the county authorities for approval before a building permit is issued. But as Gatheca says, a small number of architects on the association’s roll have turned out to be ‘guns for hire’ and will accept whatever amount offered by a developer, thus undercutting professional colleagues.

Like the other professionals we spoke to, Gatheca is quick to note that none of the buildings that collapsed had been designed by registered architects.

“You see, not everybody who gives you a painkiller is a doctor. Likewise, not anyone who can design a house and get paid for it is a registered architect. Some hire students to design houses for them,” he says.

To ensure safety in the construction phase and beyond, Gatheca says some developers retain the services of architects throughout the duration of the project to ensure that all parameters of the design are adhered to.

“Just like a car manufacturer gives a new owner some warranty period, we too can continue to provide our services for as long as the developer wishes. Any issues that may crop up are easily addressed,” says Gatheca.

When it comes to the quality of construction materials, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) conducts tests at the manufacturing points and in the market through surveillance activities.

Samples collected from construction sites such as concrete are taken through crushing tests by laboratories accredited by Kenya National Accreditation Service.

“The decision to test materials delivered at construction sites is usually left to professionals such as engineers at the sites on behalf of the developer,” states Patricia Kimanthi, Kebs spokesperson in an e-mail message to Home and Away.

However, a recent report by Questworks, a real estate design-build firm in Nairobi, says 90 per cent of concrete testing results from local laboratories are wrong, thus giving architects and engineers faulty information about construction.

The report states that due to fraud, current quality control mechanisms are not effective in ensuring structural reliability in buildings around the country.

 Safe for occupation

“Architects and engineers routinely certify buildings as safe for occupation based, in part, on inaccurate or false laboratory reports. Experts who were surveyed predicted almost perfectly as a group the poor quality of concrete used in buildings in Nairobi. This implies that the professionals are aware that something is wrong with the current quality control practices in Kenya,” states the report.

The National Construction Authority (NCA) has the mandate to ensure that all current projects meet proper building standards and that all contractors, supervisors and skilled workers are accredited and certified

According to information on NCA’s website, skilled workers include masons, carpenters and plumbers, who must produce evidence of technical qualifications from recognised institutions and relevant experience in their areas of interest as well as provide referees from the profession when applying to NCA. In addition, a developer must notify NCA of any project that commenced from June 6, 2014, failure to which it will be declared illegal.

Section 31 of the NCA Act requires developers or owners to pay a construction levy not exceeding 0.5 per cent of any project that exceeds Sh5 million.

Nairobi County Housing Executive Tom Odongo says development starts when drawings presented by a competent and registered architect are approved by the county. Structural drawings, too, are needed for higher buildings.

County approval, he says, helps the entire team of professionals keep an eye on the project. He says the buildings that have collapsed in the city had no such drawings lodged with City Hall.

What of the county’s oversight role in ensuring that such buildings do not come up in the first place?

“We only have 22 planning compliant and enforcement officers. That number is not enough to be everywhere in the city. In fact, due to security threats, they are not able to gain entry into some sites,” says Odongo.

Odongo says the county will create a database for all buildings certified as safe and an occupation certificate issued.

“We can also design a foolproof mark to identify such buildings, especially in Eastlands, where a population explosion has resulted in people living in unsafe structures,” he says.

Until all the loopholes in the construction industry are sealed, many urban dwellers like Njeri will continue to hunt for their next houses based on a building’s external looks.

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