Oped

Experts know best

  • Building plans account for seismic resilience, but lack of experts overseeing construction undermines efforts
- CARA BUCHAN, Kathmandu

Feb 19, 2018-We recently visited Helambu and North Gorkha to monitor the progress of reconstruction projects and it was heartening to witness that substantial progress had been made in the reconstruction of both housing and small public buildings.

We saw many new, well-built homes. However, there were an unfortunate number of small public buildings constructed with the support of INGOs that were, at best, unsuitable, and at worst, dangerously unsafe.

A number of these buildings had workmanship of such poor-quality that the overall safety of the building was compromised, despite obvious attempts to include seismic resilient building methods. So where are INGOs going wrong in the construction of safe, fit-for-purpose buildings?

Far from straightforward

Pre-earthquake, many INGOs operating throughout Nepal typically focused on international development programmes. When the earthquake struck, the staff refocused efforts on relief, search, and rescue operations.

They were supported by specialist teams that were deployed immediately after the earthquake. However, as the relief phase transitioned into longer term recovery, rather than engaging with construction experts to plan and implement reconstruction, many of these organisations embarked on reconstruction programmes led by staff who had little, if any, construction experience.

Their ability to implement an effective reconstruction programme has therefore proven questionable—specifically in addressing the safety risks and potential pitfalls of construction in rural Nepal. A global issue replayed locally 

The under use of construction experts such as engineers or architects in disaster recovery is recognised as a global issue, yet their experience cannot be underestimated.

In developed countries with well-established and resourced building control departments, the quality of design and construction is held to account to ensure the safety of the occupants in the building.

In contrast, remote areas of Nepal do not have the resources within the local government to diligently inspect projects. Due to the absence of such governmental resources, the responsibility lies with the INGO to verify that the construction of projects is both safe and fit-for-purpose. This can easily be achieved if construction experts oversee construction. 

The building standards in Nepal and the design guidelines published by the National Reconstruction Authority provide details on how to improve the seismic resilience of traditional construction methods, and they are easy to understand.

The apparent simplicity of the design can give a false impression that the evolution from the design to the final build is straightforward, and inherent safety can be achieved if the designs are generally followed.

However, this is often not the case due to poor implementation of the design, primarily through lack of attention to the quality of workmanship.

Undermining proper planning

We have frequently seen evidence of attempts to include seismic-resilient building techniques in stone buildings in rural areas; however, the quality of workmanship renders most techniques ineffective.

Common failures include missing or poorly connected ring beams and poor roof construction. In Nepal, as well as in other seismic regions, poor quality workmanship is the primary pitfall that compromises the safety of new or repaired buildings.

When this happens, the efforts of the design stage are undermined and ineffective, whether construction experts have been engaged or not. Employing—or engaging pro bono services—of a construction expert during the construction stage of a project can help ensure that such common mistakes are avoided or identified in time to allow them to be rectified if necessary.

The presence of experts during construction is therefore the area where construction experts can be most valuable, but is also where many INGOs fail in their delivery of safe buildings.

Ideally, construction experts should be from the local area so any potential language and cultural barriers can be minimised.

If not, they should be embedded into the local community and culture, and have the confidence to stand up to builders to make sure that corners aren’t cut and quality standards are met.

International experts can also be engaged where there is a lack of local or national expertise, or to provide guidance and assurance to less experienced local professionals in a particular building method or in seismic-resilience in general.

However, international experts must be pragmatic in their approach to assessing quality of construction and they must have an appreciation of the nuances of the local culture and politics, and their potential implications on a project. INGOs must also be mindful that international experts support local professionals and builders, not replace them.

Having a construction expert on site can also go a long way to creating a legacy of building a sustainable community. Building the skills and knowledge of the local community is imperative to ensure that communities recover from future disasters without outside assistance.

On projects where experts are not overseeing construction, the theory of each construction technique and its contribution to the overall seismic resilience of the building is not passed onto the builders and the wider community, this exacerbates dependency on outside assistance post-disaster.

Time and money should therefore be built into INGOs budgets to allow locals to be trained properly, and to rectify elements of the construction that are not built to a sufficient standard. 

INGOs have a responsibility to provide the correct expertise—whether local, national or international—on reconstruction projects to ensure that buildings are planned and built safely.

Implementation of the design during construction has been the single biggest point of failure in Nepal and this is where the role of construction experts is most valuable.

Appointing a suitably qualified and experienced construction expert to oversee construction is therefore critical to deliver safe buildings for beneficiaries, build the capacity of local skills and expertise, and ensure donor funding is spent wisely.  

Buchan is a Senior Architect for the construction consultancy WYG, based in the UK; she has been supporting Community Action Nepal’s (CAN) post-earthquake reconstruction programme since 2016

Published: 19-02-2018 08:47

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