Structural rumble in Abeokuta
Yet another building collapsed in Abeokuta, land of my birth, a picturesque city nestled on mountains and valleys. Could this collapse have been prevented? My answer is a simple yes. One life was reportedly wasted, and many injured, in that unfortunate incident. I hear that the state governor has directed that integrity tests be carried out on the collapsed building. That surely is medicine after death. An integrity test will only ascertain the quality of concrete in the structure. It gives no information regarding the structural design process, the competence of the design personnel on the project, the quality of supervision on the project, as well as quality control measures that were put in place during the execution of the project.
It is a state government project, so one expects some semblance of professionalism in the planning, design and execution of the project. I expect engineering consultants to have been involved in the design and supervision. The design process involves a visit to the site by the design structural engineer, a subsoil investigation of the site by a geotechnical engineer, a structural design philosophy formulated by the engineer, based on the engineer’s knowledge of the terrain and the outcome of the geotechnical survey, a general arrangement of the structural elements in the office, production of design calculations, drawings, and bar schedules, and checking and signing off for construction.
It is there and then that drawings and schedules are issued to site after the costs have been ascertained by a quantity surveyor. During the construction process, the structural engineer visits the site periodically as and when required to check the reinforcement and materials being used for construction. Before casting concrete, the engineer inspects each element to be cast, issues a written instruction that he has checked the reinforcement and found same to be in agreement with the structural drawings, and gives the contractor the authority to cast the concrete element in question.
This time-tested approach is not always followed on many projects, because of our Nigerianess. Many Nigerian clients don’t have respect for the hard core professionals. They prefer half-baked, ready-to-compromise fawning underlings who tell them what they want to hear. These characters have the eyes and the ears of the client; and in most cases, convince and confuse the client not to mind the more industrious professional. Many structural engineers have walked out on some projects for this singular reason. Of course, a serious minded engineer will not partake in projects that are mired in shenanigans. He simply takes a walk, because a good name, they say, is better than silver and gold. So when collapse occurs, as it invariably does, it will be hard to hear the name of any reputable engineer mentioned as being associated with such calamity.
A good engineer will reject poor materials whenever they are brought to site for concreting. He checks the sand delivered. Is it fine sharp sand or coarse sharp sand. Fine sharp sands produce lower quality concrete when compared with coarse sharp sand. A good engineer will make adjustments through trial mixes to achieve the required concrete strength. The steel delivered to site should be tested for strength, and the source of supply ascertained. In-situ tests on the concrete as it is being produced must be carried out, and the slump, as well as the cube strength of concrete in the structure must be known at age seven and 28 days, while construction is on-going. You don’t talk about integrity tests when the damage has been done. Due diligence must be carried out in pari passu as the construction work progresses.
The production of quality concrete is not the prerogative of the supervising structural engineer. It is the duty of the contractor to put in place a good quality control architecture. If this is not done, disaster might show face. The contractor is expected to have some technical education and certification up to a certain level.
But the Nigerian in us makes it possible for anybody to wake up tomorrow and says he or she is a contractor, and such people, with the right connections, get the juicy contracts. Such a contractor will simply place adverts in the newspapers and requests for engineers to apply, and herein lies the danger. An individual with an engineering degree is not yet a bona-fide engineer until he has undergone some internship under the guiding hands of a very senior engineer for a minimum of four years after graduation.
Thereafter, the intern presents himself for professional examination to The Nigerian Society of Engineers, and if he passes, he is certified and gets registered with the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria, COREN. How many people who call themselves engineers in Nigeria today have COREN certification? Go to any construction site, and you will see bricklayers, welders, electricians, auto mechanics, iron benders, carpenters, name it, all being addressed as engineers
“My people perish for lack of knowledge”, so says the Old Testament prophet, Hosea. Knowledge is defined as facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. The definition is also followed by “a thirst for knowledge”, that is the hunger to be a better and more knowledgeable person today, than you were yesterday in your chosen field. Most of my Nigerian brothers and sisters are, however, not interested in seeking knowledge or expertise in any field. They want quick fixes.
Today, parents make phone calls to lecturers in the universities to help their wards with marks. Max Romeo must be heard once more: Don’t blame the children/ Blame the teachers/ They taught the children. In this sense, the teachers are the indulgent parents. My people want the crown, but they don’t want any cross. They want babies, but they do not want to go through the pains of childbirth.
Everybody wants something for nothing, and this has resulted in the proliferation of mediocre people everywhere you turn to. Everything is in short supply except incompetence, greed and avarice. The construction industry is now an all-comers’ affair, and the door is open to quacks and charlatans. Such people are mere locusts in the system. The level of pervasive retrogression in the quality of personnel in the construction industry is alarming, and for these reasons, more buildings and bridges will collapse.
We are waiting for the outcome of the investigative panel set up by the Ogun State government to unravel the cause of this collapse. Meanwhile, a life has been wiped. The planning, design and execution of engineering projects is standardised, and if every activity is carried out according to the rules, then our projects will be as safe as mother’s milk. Always it is so, and will be as long as time endures.
Ige is a structural engineer in Lagos.