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Why Are Kampala's Buildings Collapsing?

Proper diagnosis of the problem, industrial players say, should be on the entire cycle: from drawing a plan to completion of a building and economics of the real estate industry.
09 Sep 2021 11:21
The building under construction that collapsed in Kisenyi on Sunday

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The four-floor building under construction that collapsed in Kisenyi on Sunday afternoon killing seven people was the second within a month to collapse. It followed another building that collapsed in Kitebi, Rubaga Division, killing one person on August 18th 2021.

  

As per the preliminary investigations, everything that can go wrong was wrong on Kisenyi construction site: the developer had no permit and shrugged off Kampala Capital City Authority -KCCA order to stop construction, it had weak poles that couldn’t support the slab according to National Building Review Board Executive Secretary Flavia Bwire, construction materials seemed to be of poor quality and the workmanship was poor.

  

Bwire told URN that eye witnesses on site told them that a truck that had brought construction materials knocked one of the columns on the ground floor which could have had an effect on building stability.

  

“We carried some samples for test to help us identify whether the quality of materials was good or not,” Bwire told URN in an interview. Bwire says it's too early to authoritatively tell what exactly caused the accident.Eyes will be on KCCA to ascertain if it did its job correctly. 

    

KCCA, Bwire says, has been asked to explain what transpired. 

“When an accident happens, we invite people in charge of the area to give us details of the proceedings of that place. I don’t want to pass judgement until we have spoken to them (KCCA),” Bwire says. 

    

The National Building Review Board is the supervisor of district building committees which approve construction plans and building permits. 

Provided for in the Building Control Act of 2013 and established about three years ago, Bwire says the board hasn’t been “out there forcefully” doing its job because it is the “first of its kind” in Uganda and had nowhere to learn from. 

  

But from diagnosis of buildings that have collapsed in Kampala, Bwire says, they have found that they are buildings that are not approved, not supervised by qualified professionals and constructed with poor quality materials.   

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Regulation of construction phase 

  

Proper diagnosis of the problem, industrial players say should be on the entire cycle: from drawing a plan to completion of a building and economics of the real estate industry. 

Nick Twimatsiko, an author and civil engineering consultant and Dr Apollo Buregyeya, a civil engineering lecturer at Makerere University say the focus be on the construction phase. Who is in charge of construction, what materials are they using, what character is the developer and what role do regulators such as KCCA and Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) play in the construction phase, are important questions. 

  

Given that architectural and structural engineers who draw plans have never been de-registered because of collapsed buildings, Twinamatsiko says it is an indication that engineers aren’t the problem. 

“Designs in Uganda are always correct but the problem is at the implementation stage where the clients get builders who at most have a diploma in engineering to manage the projects,” Twinamatsiko says. “You can have designs that are correct but after they have been approved, the client takes the drawings and cuts off the structural engineer and begins to do his things with the builders that are completely different from what is in the design.”

  

Also in praise of Uganda’s engineers, Dr. Buregye says,  “In Uganda, we have very good engineers to take on construction tasks. We have much better engineers than you can find in cities like Dubai, the only difference is commerce.”

  

"The market is flooded has been flooded by diploma holders who aren’t competent for jobs they are often given," Twinamatsiko says. "Such are people who end up making decisions such as what kind of poles are needed to support the slab." 

Twinamatsiko who previously was a board member of Uganda Business and Technical Examination Board -UBTEB, says the institution is awarding diplomas to students who don’t fulfill requirements. 

“They give diplomas to people who have got zero percent, someone gets a zero in an exam and is awarded a diploma,” he says.  

Such people, Twinamatsiko argues, should not be in the industry in charge of construction projects and making important decisions. 

  

To get rid of incompetent people managing projects, Dr Buregyeya says regulators such as KCCA and district building committee shouldn’t be approving plans when developers have not proved that they have financial the capacity to undertake the project and have signed binding contracts with qualified contractors supposed to actualize the project. It is developers with insufficient capital, he says, who end up going for cheap construction inputs such as cheap labour.  

  

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It doesn’t make sense to put much emphasis on getting good quality cement without bothering about how it is being used, Dr Buregyeya argues. That is why, he says, UNBS should take up the role of supervising construction standards. 

And fulfilling such a role requires them to visit construction sites and test how cement gets mixed with sand and the quality of bricks that developers use.

“Why emphasize that cement should be made following a standard but you don’t care whether that cement binds a kifufu brick, clay or concrete brick?" he asks. "Why aren’t these made following a standard? It's like you dress up well to go and play in the mud.”

  

What about regulators such as KCCA?  

KCCA’s “lame” excuse that the Kisenyi building wasn’t approved isn’t a plausible explanation, Twinamatsiko says, because the Building Control Act gives KCCA powers to stop any construction activity. KCCA said it was in the process of stopping the construction.

  

Dr Buregyeya says corrupt regulators such as KCCA are a major hindrance in the process of approving plans when officials in charge of approving plans ask for bribes to do their work. 

“When a regulator looks at your drawings, their interest is when am I going to have him so we can negotiate,” he says. “When you tell a businessman that, he understands that addressing regulatory requirements with cash is cheaper. He moves from complying to paying so that the process runs fast.” 

  

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To assuage the corruption problem, Bwire says National Building Review Board has rolled out a digital system called national building industry management system through which all plans are submitted for approval. The law requires building committees to respond in 30 days. With the system, it is possible for the board to know district committees that aren’t responding on time and ask them why.  

And as to whether KCCA has been up to the task given that buildings have been collapsing, Bwire says they are going to review its performance.  

 

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How should blame be apportioned?   

Twinamatsiko and Buregyeya argue that developers take a substantial responsibility for  the projects. And as such, Twinamatsiko says, developers should “understand that the cost of sidelining knowledge is actually higher than that of engaging knowledge.”

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