‘Substandard products have made construction a risky business’



KUNLE AWOBODU is the President of Building Collapse Prevention Guild and Second Vice President of the Nigerian Institute of Building. He spoke to Housing & Environment Editor CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM on ways to reduce influx of substandard building materials and why the government should implement the National Building Code.

Nigerian economy has finally entered recession, what does this portend for the construction industry?
Construction sector is considered the barometer of a nation’s economy. A boom in the construction activities across a nation signifies advancement in its physical development and growth in employment rate.Economic recession that has now gripped Nigeria portends a doom for the nation’s construction or real estate sector. It will exacerbate retrenchment. Crime rate will increase. With the low purchasing power, there will be severe reduction in the number of people and organisations embarking on construction projects. Investors are reluctant to commit capital in an ailing economy because of returns incertitude. Government policy on low cost or affordable housing will suffer a reverse or difficult implementation. And building material business will experience a sharp decline.

There has been influx of substandard building materials in the market leading to incessant complaints and defects in buildings. How have builders and Building Collapse Prevention Guild (BPCG) viewed these problems and solve it? What is the way out?
It is unfortunate that Nigeria remains a dumping ground for substandard building materials because of the weakened naira value, ignorance and enforcement challenges. This is an area where the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) has been facing a herculean task, battling the unrelenting and smart manufacturers and merchants of substandard building materials.

Substandard plumbing materials, electrical cables and fittings that create leakages and heat in buildings are prevalent in the Nigerian building materials market. Immature and undersized timber members, low quality steel reinforcement bars, weak sandcrete blocks and other substandard products have made construction a risky business in Nigeria. A lot of time is expended in the market trying to sieve the materials in order to identify the quality ones. The SON seems overwhelmed. That is why the collaboration between the SON and BCPG should be strengthened. Builders, construction professionals, artisans and users of building materials generally should not hesitate to alert SON officials whenever they encounter substandard building materials.The Nigerian Ports Authority and Customs should be stricter and use scientific approach to prevent influx of substandard building materials into the country. However, the SON should be enlarged and empowered to carry out its statutory role effectively.

The dearth of skillful artisans in Nigeria seems to be getting worse with the exit of foreign artisans. What have you put in place to improve their certification process?
Hitherto, domination of the Nigerian construction industry by foreign building artisans was of grave concern to those promoting local content philosophy. Professional builders would always prefer artisans and craftsmen that would add value to and promote their works to the satisfaction of architects that designed them and the clients or the end users. Hence, builders are less concerned about the origin of well-skilled workers. Attitude of the worker also matters. An artisan that is full of conceit, intractable and not willing to learn new method from a young builder on site would not be attractive despite being a Nigerian.

However, emigration of foreign artisans from Nigeria because of poor exchange rate of naira will affect the quality of work in the construction sector temporarily. But it will eventually force us to encourage the Nigerian youths to embrace vocational training that will make them gainfully employed in the construction industry. This process is already being established by the National Board of Technical Education through the National Vocational Qualification Framework, which now provides building artisans the opportunity to be certified by the Nigerian Institute of Building. The Lagos State Ministry of Housing is already in the process of implementing this through its Master Craftsmen Project that is aimed at training about 4,000 building artisans.

Now, it is evident that homeownership will be a long call, with skyrocketing prices of building materials. Don’t you think prospective homeowners will cut corners to have a roof over their heads, worsening the problem of building collapse? What measures will your guild recommend to government at this period to check such incidents?
The danger inherent in the contract clause that abhors variation in a building contract comes to the fore in a situation where prices of materials are increased. Clients are averse to fluctuation. Contractors who don’t have the courage, patience and skill to convince the clients find escape routes in sharp practices.
For instance, this sudden and silent increase in cement price will lead many contractors and clients to cut corners. To discourage substandard construction under this circumstance, a deliberate advocacy should be embarked upon to counsel contractors, developers and clients on the implications of reducing cement to aggregate ratio.

The Guild membership cuts across all professional bodies in the built environment. What has been the achievement of the body since it decentralized its operations?
The decentralisation of BCPG activities to cells is to bring the efforts at reducing building collapse to grassroots level. The multidisciplinary composition of the guild makes problems to be solved from different perspectives and holistically. It has reduced professional segregation, bickering and persecution among allied professionals. BCPG created a platform where new friends, like minds and reliable business partners were discovered. It has also proved that Nigerians, who could volunteer for community service, exist. BCPG members have been identifying substandard building construction and defective buildings in their localities or cells and alerting building control officials.

This huge network has assisted the government in checking calamities. However, the lamentation from members is about the low staff strength of the ministry, the inadequacy of enforcement from the government end and compromise. The guild has also been organising workshops, seminars and other enlightenment programmes at different cells. The organization has also been conducting scientific investigations to unravel the immediate and remote causes of collapsed buildings in order to prevent reoccurrence.

Expectations have been rife that home grown methods to build cheaper houses should have been introduced by builders. It is not forth coming years after. How do we build cheaper houses?
Low cost houses require cheap materials, workmanship and simple technology, which are quite difficult to achieve. The Nigerian Building and Road Research Institute and other research inclined bodies have been working along this line and there have been some discoveries. But much still needs to be done in order to bring into reality acceptable, comfortable and attractive cheap buildings.

The Federal Government recently said it plans to harmonise the National Building Code and Building Efficiency Guideline to address the housing deficit. Will such document ensure housing in Nigeria and enforcement of the building code? What can be done to ensure the building code works?
Building code is a prerequisite for building design and construction in many countries. But it is unfortunate that the Nigerian built environment professional bodies have been struggling for years to make the Nigerian government adopt one to no avail. To reduce substandard construction in Nigeria, the National Building Code should be implemented. With consistent enforcement, incidence of building collapse will become a thing of the past.

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