State caught napping as buildings tumble

Five-storey building leans on another at Kinoo in Kiambu County after collapsing on March 6, 2022. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

One moment, officials from the National Construction Authority (NCA) are shepherding people out of a building that looks set to collapse and the next, under the rubble of the freshly collapsed building, lie the same people who had been asked to leave but defied orders.

This script has become common in Kenya. Sub-standard constructions are tumbling everywhere, taking innocent lives and compounding problems for a sector littered with rogue players, who are the very reason these buildings crumble.

On November 15, after a compliance check, officials ordered everyone working on the construction of a six-storey residential house in Seasons, Kasarani, to immediately vacate the site.

However, after the officers had left, cunning workers got back in. Hours later, the building gave in and some were buried under the rubble. Three died.

“Construction works in the site had been previously suspended in order S/No 143383 dated September 20, 2022, by the Authority due to several non-compliance issues, including forgery of a project registration certificate,” said NCA Executive Director Maurice Akech.

In the compliance check of that fateful morning, it was discovered that the building “was experiencing a column failure based on virtual observation” according to Eng Akech.

This was one in a spate of collapses within a week. On November 21, a five-storey building in Ruiru gave way, barely hours after the Kiambu County Government ordered residents to vacate.

The structure was unsound and had visible cracks, which caused locals to raise the alarm. In November alone, three buildings have collapsed; Ruaka (a six-storey residential that killed two), Seasons Kasarani (a six-storey residential that killed three) and Kwa Ndege Embakasi (the seven-storey building that killed one).

On September 26, this year, a six-storey residential building in Kirigiti, Kiambu fell and killed five people.

While many residents may be complaining about rising insecurity in Nairobi’s city centre and the threat of knife and gun-wielding goons, death may be lurking right in that harmless-looking construction overlooking your house.

Negligence by developers and contractors has majorly been behind these collapses, authorities say.

 Discontinuation of construction

A statement released by Lands, Public Works, Housing and Urban Development Cabinet Secretary Zachariah Njeru said the government had ordered the discontinuation of construction of the collapsed buildings.

“Works on all the collapsed buildings had been suspended by the NCA, and follow-up on the enforcement visits revealed that the suspension orders were presently defied,” he said.

A collapsed building opposite Ruiru Police Station on November 21, 2022. [File, Standard]

“Arrests were made in these instances and the accused persons arraigned in court awaiting the hearing of their cases for the offences for which they were arrested.”

Even more disturbing is that occupants of neighbouring houses remain unsafe, with some of the unsound constructions collapsing onto adjacent buildings, sometimes resulting in deaths.

Last year, a succession of similar accidents attracted the attention of stakeholders in the industry who came together and swore to streamline a sector marred by incompetence and negligence.

For instance, a five-storey residential building in Kinoo sank and leant so precariously that it drew similarities to the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.

Twitter was awash with memes even as rescue efforts were underway.

The building had given in to a weak foundation and suddenly put lives at risk, but it was ultimately flattened under the supervision of engineers from the NCA and the county government.

No one died. “You cannot build a five-storey structure on a narrow foundation without the service of a structural engineer. It will collapse,” said then Institution of Engineers of Kenya (IEK) President Nathaniel Matalanga.

CS Njeru says that any construction against which a suspension order has been issued should immediately cease works and only resume after the compliance and a lifting order has been issued, failure to which they (developers and contractors) “will be subjected to the full force of the law, which will include the arrest and arraignment in court for criminal prosecution”.

This is, however, not enough to deter rogue players until strict action is taken on those who are flouting rules and officials become more vigilant.

The public is also urged to be on the lookout for signs of danger.

“The ministry also advises members of the public who reside or work near an active construction site to report any site marked by the NCA X sign but is still engaging in construction works to the nearest police station,” the CS said.

Mr Njeru also said it will publish a list of all sites countrywide that have defied suspension orders “even as we ensure the developers and contractors of such are prosecuted to the full extent of the law”.

There will be enhanced surveillance of all ongoing construction to ensure strict compliance with the approved designs as well as supervision by qualified technical persons.

“For those construction sites where a suspension order has been issued, the National Buildings Inspectorate (NBI) and NCA, backed by a multi-agency team, have been directed to conduct a rapid inspection at the onset of this rainy season, to ensure the sites remain vacated.

“The NBI has been directed to enhance their inspection of completed buildings to confirm their structural integrity.”

 Abdicating duty

In a past interview, the chairman of the Institution of Construction Project Managers of Kenya Tom Oketch blamed inspectors, and by extension the county governments, for abdicating duty.

“People will want to take shortcuts when building to cut on costs and time, and so if there is not enough supervision of structures, they are all condemned to fall,” he said.

“Such constructions should be nipped in the bud, but those responsible for it seem to be reluctant to do their job.”

Rescue operation in Kasarani after a building collapsed on November 15, 2022. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

How do the approval plans go and what is the role of the county government? At the outset, the developer or their agents submit a development proposal in the form of building plans to the county government for consideration of approval.

“Vetting by a physical planner within the county government establishments then follows, with invoicing for payment of the necessary applicable approval fees,” said Joseph Njomo, Principal Physical Planner with the County Government of Nyeri, in an interview with Real Estate.

Upon payment, the application is registered and booked for consideration by the approval committee.

After approval of the building, plans are released to the applicant, together with a building inspector card bearing the name of the officer who is supposed to ensure that all the listed steps of construction are monitored and followed as per the conditions of approval.

“Registration of the approved plan with the NCA is done. During construction, right from the setting out of the site to the foundation and all the way to completion, the developer is expected to engage the building inspector at every stage,” Njomo said.

For development in an environmentally sensitive area, National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) approval is mandatory. High-level developments such as residential multi-dwelling units and industries are also subjected to Nema scrutiny.

“Upon completion of the project where the inspection card is duly signed by the building inspector and the developer’s consultant, a completion certificate and a subsequent occupation certificate are issued,” Njomo said.

In case of an approved project where the developer fails to engage the building inspector as guided, an enforcement notice is issued to stop further construction until a structural integrity report is submitted by a private registered structural engineer.

The structural integrity report indemnifies the county government in the event of any catastrophe.

The county government should not be absolved from blame if such buildings collapse without the report being available. “In case of non-approval, the above procedure also applies but is subject to payment of regularisation fees.

“In case of defiance to an enforcement notice, the prosecution is instituted through the county government legal office,” Njeru said.