Feature Article of Thursday, 15 November 2012

Columnist: Karikari-Yeboah, Ohene

The Tragedy Of Melcom Building

Lessons To Be Learnt And Actions To Be Taken

The collapse of the six-storey Melcom Building on Wednesday, November 7, 2012, and the lives that were lost should be of great concern to all Ghanaians, and to everyone who lives in Ghana or visits Ghana. The greatest worry of all is the fact that there have been similar incidences in recent times. Not too long ago, a similar building under construction in Kumasi collapsed in similar manner killing several people and injuring many others. Not too long after, an overhead concrete slab collapsed at KNUST killing one female student and seriously injuring another. It is understood, since then and until now, there have been other similar incidence, which went without much publicity in the national media. What is even more worrying is the fact that these engineering failures are occurring without any triggers from natural events. What then will happen if there should be an earthquake of magnitude 7+ on the Reiter Scale in Ghana? Would the whole country flattened. This is a serious matter, which should be given very serious consideration.
Whereas the emphasis has been on whether the contractor did or did not obtain building permit, that kind of emphasis sounds too simplistic and mere figure pointing to me in Ghana’s case. We all know that anybody with the financial means to put up these buildings can easily obtain building permit in Ghana, even if the engineering of the building had been carried out by a draft person. What is more, are we bold enough to say that all the buildings in the country that were built with permits are safe? What about the previous collapses in Kumasi, did the contractor obtain permit? What were the causes of the failure and what action was taken? What lessons were learnt? What about the KNUST slab failure? What action has been taken since then? The slab failure at KNUST was most likely due to fatigue in the concrete structure. For the age of the concrete, there would have been some warning, most likely in the form of cracks, prior to the failure. The fact is nobody bothered to complain or act on the cracks. Common sense would suggest that all structures of similar age within the university would have been subjected to extensive inspection and remediation, if similar failures are to be avoided in the future. In fact, I expected other institutions and owners of commercial properties elsewhere in the country to do the same. I hope they did. The failures of the storey buildings in Kumasi and Accra, which occurred during and not too long after completion of construction, are the results of one or combination of poor foundations, poor structural design and poor construction. The sad thing is that if the necessary lessons had been learnt from the Kumasi incidence and relevant measures taken, the Accra incidence could have been avoided.
There is no doubt that the current standard of engineering practice in Ghana cannot withstand the demand on technology as the economy improves. Stringent attention to details is required with some of these medium to major structures, which only comes with strict enforcement of appropriate regulatory policies. It is obvious that current standard of engineering practice in the country cannot handle the complexities of engineering in the current environment. An urgent overhaul of engineering practice with proper and stringent regulations and regulatory enforcement procedures is, hence, required. For the present calamities, I suggest the following actions as a matter of urgency. The geotechnical and structural design documentations of all buildings of three stories and higher should be reviewed. Those with questionable design or designers should be identified for redesign and strengthening. For all of them, the construction supervision documentations should be reviewed to ensure that the designs were what were actually built. Wherever existing documentations cast doubts on the integrity of the structure, the worst case scenario should be assumed and appropriate remedial measures taken. While the cost of this action can be quite high, but it will go a long way to save lives in the event of major natural catastrophe.

Ohene Karikari-Yeboah
Maiden Geotechnics
Queensland, Australia