Feature Article of Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Columnist: Kontoh, Albert

The Melcom Structure – What Went Wrong?

When civil engineering schemes go wrong the consequences can be very expensive. Hence, there are managerial procedures, codes of practice, guidelines and recommendations for carrying out specific projects within the engineering industry. There was nothing peculiar about the six-storey Melcom building. Ancient artisans constructed significantly complex buildings that withstood the test of time without the technology available today. Also similar commercial or industrial buildings are available in most Ghanaian towns. So what went wrong?
After conception, engineering projects are designed and constructed to deliver a defined level of service within a specific time frame. Following construction, the particular infrastructure must be operated and maintained in a reasonably practicable standard until it is decommissioned or demolished at the end of its design life. When the mandatory procedures and relevant checks and balances are implemented for a structure to ensure it is fit for purpose, the likelihood of any unexpected scenarios become extremely remote. Schemes that are unable to withstand their operational rigours and do not meet end users and economic expectations are considered unsuccessful.
For the Melcom building, it is one thing failing to meet end users’ expectations, and another collapsing a short time after construction, commissioning and being in service. The media have stated facts upon facts that the building was constructed without planning permission or consent. A preliminary report released by The Ghana Institute of Engineers cited the use of sub-standard materials as the most probable cause of failure. Others have put the blame directly on the building inspectors for not exercising due diligence in carrying out their duties. Representatives of the building owner, as expected, contend that the collapse occurred as a result of bad management by the tenant, Melcom.
Snapshot of reasons given for the catastrophic collapse by the various parties appear defensive. In my estimation they are predictable and flimsy. Let’s put things in perspective here! Lives have been lost. People have sustained profound injuries. Some of the injured and those who escaped unscathed would require long term treatment to deal with the trauma and associated psychological consequences. To a lesser extent, others have lost their jobs and livelihood. Let us pause for a moment and look at the ripple effect too – think outside the box and consider those who live and work in similar buildings. What would be going on in their minds as they turn off the lights in the night to sleep or say good bye to their family and leave for work in the morning?
Professionals in the construction industry have a moral obligation to ensure that the safety of the public and users of engineering facilities is topmost priority, and not compromised for any reason. If the relevant procedures had been followed until the building was occupied, vital evidence of the sudden failure would lie no further than those who played the following roles:
• Architect – Design of the building
• Design Engineer – Initial Structural Analyses
• Independent Checker – Design Auditor
• Building Control – Accra Metropolitan Authority (permit or consent to construct and follow-up inspections)
• Contractor – Construction / Site Engineer
• Client’s Supervising Engineer
• Approver of the building (as safe) for occupation
Depending on the size and complexity of the project, the Design Engineer would have a representation on site, called the Designer’s Site Representative. His role will normally be to help ensure that the site team interprets the design documentation accurately and to address any construction queries. The roles stated above generally provide a robust system of quality checks. It is also not uncommon for the conditions of contract, the legal framework upon which projects are based to introduce additional safeguards or precautions, all with the view to eliminate potential risks. In the UK, the Construction, Design and Management Regulations also impose legally binding and enforceable Health and Safety duties on the key stakeholders – client, designer, contractor, etc.
Perhaps our methods of undertaking construction schemes are characterised by institutional carelessness. Notwithstanding, if some public officials or professionals have cut corners and indulged in some illegalities or knowingly exceeded authority for improper reasons, then they should face the music and accept liability for their actions. Responsibilities cannot be vested in the irresponsible.
The tendency for politicians to use an incident like this for points scoring when an election is looming seems irresistible. In a live television debate on the subject, Kwabena Agyapong who is a qualified civil engineer and an NPP political heavy weight, implied unequivocally that the sad occasion, was in fact, an opportunity to review our culture of carrying out construction works. Rightly so, which politician visited the scene first was immaterial, and that intervention was adequate to prevent other debaters from hijacking the moment for party politics. In situations like this, party politics should be relegated to the background. The common sense line of action is to gather as much information as possible, use feedback and lessons learned to minimise the likelihood of such an event ever happening again.
Those who committed criminal acts through negligence and incompetence or by virtue of their positions deserve to face the full impact of the law. However, there is no need to be too adversarial and resort to knee-jerk reactions; otherwise it will be like a “vent-your-spleen” exercise on innocent people.
Consider the three examples below and form your own opinion:
• In June this year, the rooftop car park of Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Canada, caved in suddenly. Two people lost their lives.
• In 2007, a bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis (USA) collapsed without warning during rush-hour. It killed thirteen and injured over a hundred and forty people.
• The curving concrete roof of a terminal building at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris collapsed and killed five people in May 2004.
The owner of the collapsed building, Nana Boadu, had good intentions. His investment created a number of jobs for construction workers and the people employed by Melcom. His hopes dwindled within a twinkling of an eye when the building turned into a pile of rubble, mangled metals and rotten groceries. What he set out to do has caused the loss of innocent lives. He will battle the emotional agony deep into the future and may struggle to rebound.
To recap, a business man erected a six-story building in the centre of Accra without the necessary documentation, as it is alleged. He successfully rented out the premise to a retail giant who operated a supermarket from the facility in the full glare of Building Control. It did not occur to any executive or official to consider checking the legitimacy and structural stability of the building. It eventually collapsed causing many fatalities and injuries. Whom should the public blame for this shambles?

Human beings have no magical powers to defy the laws of gravity. Hence, no matter how magnificent structures are, they sometimes inevitably succumb to gravitational forces and fall down unexpectedly. These occur, in majority of the times, when the systems put in place to ensure their stability fall prey to human weaknesses. Let’s give Nana Boadu some quiet to lick his wounds. He is a victim as well as a survivor. Our society needs to tackle institutional recklessness and professional misconduct squarely in the face. This disaster was avoidable, and the real wrongdoers are probably on the loose.

Albert Kontoh