Building Collapse: Who is really responsible?
Failure of a building’s structure leads to collapse. What are the various reasons for a building’s structure to collapse? The most simple reason is that the load on the building is her than the one its designed for, leading to one or more building elements to buckle/crush/bend. This triggers a chain reaction, causing undue stress on the remaining elements, causing failure and thereby collapse.
Similarly, a failure in a building that is under construction can also be caused due to incorrect scaffolding that supports the structure till the concrete gains adequate strength to stand on it own. Over the years, we have seen multiple such failures, the recent one at Pride Park Xpress site at Balewadi being one of the latter kind.
Immediately post such a failure, there is, of course, a knee jerk reaction from everybody involved leading to arrests of professionals, while Developers evade this successfully. The primary stakeholders in a real estate are the Developer (project proponent), the team of consultants including Architect, Structural Engineer and a Technical team of Contractor, the Municipal / Town Planning Authority and of course the numerous common persons who have bought homes in the project.
A typical process of building construction can be listed as follows, with minor variations between cities and regions:
1. A Developer identifies and invests in a site, develops a tentative brief of the kind of homes/offices that he/she wishes to build based on market conditions.
2. An architect is consulted to generate a design based on the brief and one that fits into the legal requirements of the Development Control Rules. Typically, the Floor Space Index (FSI) which defines how much space in square meters can the project construct is designed by the Architect. This is called the maximum potential.
3. Other consultants such as Structural Engineer designs the proposed building for structural stability and defines what strength of materials will have to be used
4. Other consultants such as Mechanical & Plumbing Engineers design the services such as Water & Electrical Systems
5. Clearances and NOCs as may be applicable are applied for and the project is scrutinized at government level. For example, Fire Safety scrutiny, Environmental Scrutiny etc
6. The Municipal or concerned Government authority Sanctions the Building Plans. This can also be done partially or fully. For example, a building project can get an initial sanction for 5 floors, but since the DC Rule allow a more FSI, this building can increase the floors in the revision sanction
7. Essentially it is assumed and it is a standard practice to design the building for its maximum potential. So even though the sanction can happen partially over floors, the structural stability is designed taking into consideration the entire final construction that is possible for the project
8. Now the project is ready for construction on site. The work is tendered out to a Contractor, who is legally contracted to conduct all site execution activities, including employment of labour, transport of materials etc
9. During construction, the respective consultants make periodic site visits to check specific requirements as per their scope of work
10. If all goes well, the project takes shape in a year or two and homes are ready for occupancy, as designed and planned by a concerted effort of all consultants and with investment of money by the Developer.
If you see the above 10step process, you will realise that the home that you stay in is actually made possible due to all the stakeholders doing the right work for you. Even if one of the stakeholder makesa mistake, there is failure - right from water seepage inside a building to actual collapse of the building itself.
The reason that I am prompted to write this article is the fact that when a building collapse occurs, the first thing that this entire real estate industry tries to do is allocate responsibility to someone else. The other day, when I spoke about this responsibility allocation at a coffee table conversation, I realised that I was making very hollow arguments to a homeowner, essentially conveying a very serious message that when it comes to constructing a building, no one is really responsible for anything! Now, that’s a scary thought. All the lifelong savings are put into investing in a home which is built under the responsibility of no one!
Real Estate sector needs a serious thought to allocation of responsibility. First and foremost, this sector is fraught with Developers who can bring in investment but who don’t even have a basic office and systems to manage construction of homes. Secondly, professionals like Architects and Structural Engineers, who are bound by their respective professional Acts, are a weak lobby and pander to the needs and whims of the Developer. The defined responsibility versus the actual engagement with the project is seriously compromised due to cut throat competition of lower fees. Many Developers do not value good consultant inputs, which comes at a higher price. Also, sometimes, contrary to the scope of work as defined in the Professionals Act, reducing fees and thereby reducing the involvement of professionals in the project is a common practice prevalent today.
So consider this case, A developer negotiates with an Architect and Structural Engineer to arrive at a reduced fees and reduced scope of work. The design is done by both these consultants and handed over to the Developer. Further to this, no engagement of both these consultants happens on site. So, essentially these Professionals have no direct control over whether the structure is actually being built as designed! Then, are they responsible for failure? Is reducing the scope of work of professionals permitted by law and should professionals put their foot down when it comes to such practices?
The municipal authority/sanctioning authority conducts site visits to building projects. But are they equipped to conduct an audit of construction management practices happening at site?In the latest case of Balewadi project, the immediate reactions of the Municipal officers was that the 13th floor was not yet sanctioned and thus illegal. This does not make any sense. The failure of scaffolding in this case and structural collapse in other cases may very well happen to sanctioned floors. So really, the illegality of not following a sanctioning process cannot be an argument for building failure. Vice versa, a totally illegal (not sanctioned) buildings are very well standing and may be structurally stable, while completely sanctioned (non illegal) buildings may fail.
These and many questions need a proper understanding and analysis to bring in more credibility, more accountability and thus formalizing the real estate sector. The formalizing of the sector has been resisted by Developers for long, but good Developer firms are realizing the importance of regulation and formalizing now that the sector is losing credibility in the midst of an economic slump.
Finally, we have to also address the issue of ‘immediate action’ carried out by police and authorities when such a mishap occurs. Arresting and thereby badly impacting the professional reputation of a professional is a knee jerk reaction. Can we not lay down a process that is better suited to control professional ignorance, if any? Architect Hrishikesh Kulkarni has cited an excellent example. In the medical profession, when some surgery/medical procedure goes wrong and leads to complications, including death of the patient, a procedure to expertly assess the causes of failure has been laid down. Construction of a building can be compared to a surgery, where multiple stakeholders are involved and even a slight mistake by anyone of these can lead to serious repercussions, he says. The Medical fraternity has evolved the procedure of a Board of Medical Experts to tackle this issue. In case of failure, this Board which is essential medical experts, assess the reasons for failure and then allocates responsibility to the concerned professional.
This not only gives a chance for professionals to present their say/plea and an experts body can really assess the causes and reasons for failure in a fair and transparent manner. This cause can be taken up by the Associations of Architects and Structural Engineers. However, like said earlier, the concerted effort of many professionals, skilled and unskilled labour is at work when building homes. Unless, we put a serious thought of how to formalize this sector, we will be just tackling one problem, without giving clear answers to another. Strict allocation of specific responsibility to professionals and registration and minimum requirements for Developers and Contractors can be good starting points towards this direction.