Issues in Building Collapse

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The recent collapse of Reigners Bible Church in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, in which the official death toll was about 50, has brought to the fore, the issue of building collapse in Nigeria. Notably, in 2014, there was the collapse of the Guest House of the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) pastored by T.B. Joshua, and subsequently, a residential complex, Lekki Gardens (about 30 people died).

The frequency in the collapse of buildings in our country, has become a cause for concern. Are the building owners and/or their building professionals cutting corners in construction and putting up sub-standard buildings? Are unqualified people being employed to do the jobs? Are the Building Professionals approved by the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN)? Without COREN’s approval, no individual or organisation is allowed to practice engineering in Nigeria. Are the building professionals using sub-standard materials? Or are they circumventing building regulations (with the connivance of the staff of the Building Authorities)? Or could it be that the liability for these mishaps may lie with the Building Authorities, who may have approved less than adequate building plans?
Whatever the case, legally, if a building collapses and it is proven that it was sub-standard, then someone or people will have to be held accountable, either in tort or criminally or both.

Main Causes of Building Collapse in Nigeria
In Nigeria, the main cause of building collapse has been found to be mainly structural failure, followed by poor workmanship and faulty designs respectively. In these circumstances, investigations usually reveal that specifications for the required building materials and safety procedures are sacrificed on the altar of profit and time, that is, to complete construction in record time.

Synagogue Church for All Nations
In the case of SCOAN, about 116 people, including 84 South Africans, lost their lives in the collapse, and many more were injured and left with permanent disabilities. While the management of the Church claimed that the collapse was caused as a result of an aircraft flying low, very close to the Guest House, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) denied that this was the cause of the collapse of the building.

Investigation by the Coroner, on the other hand, ruled that SCOAN was criminally negligent, that is, recklessly acting without reasonable caution and putting the lives of others at risk of injury or death, as serious structural failings were found to be the cause of the collapse. Some of the charges brought against SCOAN are failure to obtain building plan approval contrary to the Urban and Regional Planning Law of Lagos State and Involuntary Manslaughter contrary to Section 222 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State.

Questions
The first question that comes to mind is, how can a purported house of God, proceed to flout the law to such an extent, building without approval from the authorities and with wrong, inadequate materials? For instance, in his report (including other breaches), the Coroner was apparently said to have found that inadequate beams of 750mm by 225mm were used, instead of 900mm by 300mm. The report also stated that the Columns of the building, were inadequately reinforced.

The next question is, how do the injured get compensated? The injured in this situation may include the owner of the building and the victims that are either injured or have lost their lives in the incident. Assuming that the collapsed building owner followed the proper procedures necessary to erect the building, and was unaware of the sharp practices of his builders, that the building owner was blameless, he may seek redress to recover material losses from the builders, resulting from the building collapse and breach of contract between him and them.

The injured and families of those who may have lost their lives in the mishap, may also seek compensation. However, it is sometimes difficult to do so, because firstly, those that are responsible for the calamity must be identified, and demands for compensation addressed to them. Usually, there are allegations and counter-allegations, between the parties involved in the construction, from the owner, to the structural engineering consultant, to the contractor.
Interestingly, I spoke to a seasoned Building Professional who explained different scenarios to me.

Liability of the Structural Engineer
In the first scenario, according to the Building Professional, the Structural Engineer is responsible for certifying the suitability of all the materials to be utilised for the project, eg the rods, beams, casting etc. The Structural Engineer must obtain a certificate of the suitability of the reinforcements for the building from a properly accredited laboratory or source of purchase, to be able to proceed with the certification. The laboratory of the University of Lagos is the popular one of choice in Lagos State. As the Structural Engineer is responsible for ascertaining the products used, he is to blame if the wrong or sub-standard materials are certified.

Joint Liability
The second scenario was rather alarming. Generally, in the case of churches and conference centres etc, they tended to begin their activities in smaller buildings, before proceeding to expand. However, the existing foundation or structure may not be suitable for the planned expansion. Proceeding with such expansion regardless of this fact, has resulted in devastating consequences. The Church might also engage the services of their church members, sometimes without the correct or requisite qualifications, as opposed to seasoned Consultants, to do their construction. In this case, the duty of care required for erecting buildings to be utilised by a large number of people, is not observed.

In the second scenario, the Building Professional suggested that it is clear that the Church, Structural Engineer and Contractor are jointly liable for any mishap.

He further explained that in some cases, the Building Owner, who has zero knowledge about construction and wants to cut costs, refuses to follow the advice of the Structural Engineer and other professionals. While the building owner likely has limited or no knowledge on construction, the structural engineer is a professional, and should avoid projects where owners are willing to sacrifice lives and property in favour of economising. If not, they will also be jointly liable with their building owner client, for any mishap.

Building Authority Officials who turn a blind eye to non-adherence to regulations and standards, are also liable.

Steps that Victims Can Take
Victims should immediately consult a lawyer. In the case of death, an autopsy report must be obtained from a duly accredited pathologist. In the case of injury, a proper detailed treatment report from the hospital and expenses incurred is also necessary.
In the first scenario, the injured and families of deceased, may seek their compensation from the Structural Engineer, who may also face criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter, in a court of law, in the case of death in the mishap, and/or lesser criminal charges, in the case of injury.

In the second scenario, victims can seek their compensation from all the parties, jointly and severally. It is however, advisable for those seeking compensation, to try to secure an out- of-court settlement, as litigation could take years.
In the case of SCOAN, for example, two South African children, whose father died in the mishap, sued the church for damages to compensate them for the money their father would have expended on them, until he attained the age of 70.

Curbing the Trend of Building Collapse in Nigeria
So what steps can be taken to curb this ugly trend?
Ensure that all engineers on your construction project are COREN approved.
As a matter of urgency, there should be a review of the laws relating to construction, like the Urban and Regional Planning Law and the National Building Code, to ensure that all the bases have been covered. New legislation to fill any compliance gaps, which may have resulted in frequent building collapses, must be promulgated.

The steps to obtaining building plan approvals seem to be quite clear and robust. However, ensuring compliance to and enforceability of the laws, during the construction project, seems to be more of a challenge. Building Authorities must ensure strict compliance to the existing laws, by those involved in construction projects. Frequent inspections of construction sites by the Building Authorities, especially churches and other public buildings, which will be utilised by many, to ensure compliance to regulations, should be undertaken.

For instance, while constructing a building with approval for 3 floors, the owner may decide to increase the number of floors to 5. However, an additional building plan approval for the extra 2 floors, must be sought and obtained, before the extra floors are added. The onus is on the Structural Engineer to do the calculations to ensure that the existing structure can carry the additional load. However, in practice, staff of the Building Authorities that look the other way, permit these additions to be implemented, while assessments, regularisation and obtaining the approval for the additions are done later. This practice must be curtailed, as it has resulted in several building collapses.

In the days of old, the Code of Hammurabi, which dates back to about 1754 BC was clear in the way it dealt with liability for building defects, especially those that resulted in death:
“If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house that builder shall be put to death.

If the son of the owner dies, the son of the Builder shall be killed.”
Likewise, present-day law must also provide clear remedies for innocent parties who end up being victims in building collapse mishaps. Building collapse, even in the ancient days, was treated as a serious matter that it is, and not with levity.

In the event of a guilty verdict, the veil must be lifted from the Management/Trustees/ Directors of organisations involved in building collapse, and those responsible for this reckless disregard for lives, be made to face the wrath of the law. This will go a long way in curbing this negative trend.