Time for changes in the construction industry

With what seems to be a rising spate of large earthquakes everywhere these days, to me it seems all bets are off. We can take nothing for granted. Not even 400 years of absolute seismic inactivity in a region seems to prove anything. The thing to do it seems is to prepare for the big one.

In Bhutan, it is easy to be lulled into complacency. Although we are supposed to fall into zone 5 in the seismic zoning maps of India, the fact is that earthquakes, small or big, do not feature regularly in our lives. Years can pass without one actually experiencing a quake. Compare that with Japan where one is reminded on a monthly if not weekly schedule.

So what must we do to ensure we shake off our complacency? I guess a lot. As Buddhists we seem to be trying to be mindful of a lot of things for the sake of our future births. How about being a bit mindful for protecting this one? The construction sector has lot to improve. In our civil service our professional engineers cannot really be distinguished from regular civil servants in terms of their ‘professionalism’. Contracting is today almost purely a business and it has almost become a right to have a contractor’s license. Below are some thoughts on what should change.

Decrease the building’s weight. The force of a quake is directly proportional to the weight of the building. So where it’s possible, simply try to use lighter materials. For the walls drop the use of heavy brick or concrete block in-fill walls and adopt lighter alternatives such as lightweight concrete bricks or light steel frames covered with light cement sheets. Stop the use of heavy concrete traditional cornices wrapping around the building. It adds close to 1MT per running metre to theĀ  building’s weight! Alternatives would be timber or GRC or FRC cornices.

The Ministry of Education’s 6 classroom block built with stone masonry weighs approximately 160MT. The same building built with light steel framing weighs approximately 16-20MT. Which building would you like your kids to study in?

The MoE unfortunately dropped the use of light steel classrooms because of an inability to ensure a dependable supply chain of materials that at the time were not readily available in India because India didn’t use light steel framing. Eight years on and the system has received big acceptance in India and now Indian firms are trying to come to Bhutan to sell the technology to us! It is time to bring back light steel framing technology to Bhutan as it is perfectly suitable for housing, non-metropolitan schools and who knows what.

Apply the escape measures in the codes. The building codes have comprehensive requirements for ensuring that occupants have a fair chance of escape during a disaster. The number of doors to a room, the width of the escape corridor and stairs, the number of stairs, the distance between the stairs, the type of building materials etc etc, are all clearly specified in the codes. On the ground you wouldn’t know such codes even existed. The harsh fact is that even the government inspectors don’t know the codes well enough to enforce these important requirements.

Apply the fire codes. Fires usually follow earthquakes and this often leads to more casualties than the quake itself. One of the measures to ensure safe escape of occupants is to ensure that the designated escape route itself does not turn into a furnace. This means that escape routes cannot be open to the occupied parts of the building but must be separated by walls and doors capable of withstanding fires for 1 hour or more. Usually this rules out any timber or ekra arrangement. Fire doors are made from fire resistant materials of steel or other non-combustible materials. Stairwells must be kept enclosed. No timber trusses, timber eaves etc. Windows and doors facing adjacent buildings must have non-combustible framing or not be there at all. These measures will help stop the flames from hopping from building to building.

Professionalize the engineering sector. At present there is no proper registration system for engineers. Proper licensing systems will help promote accountability and responsibility for one’s own work. Structural engineers need to be licensed and no one but licensed engineers should be allowed to prepare structural designs. There is a move to introduce an engineers’ association, but it has quickly gone off track and is becoming little more than an engineers’ lobby with anybody with half a degree in civil engineering being included in the club. This happens all too often in Bhutan.

Professionalize the contracting industry. Construction is not a pure business, it entails serious public safety issues. Licensing examinations need to be introduced for contractors to ensure minimum standards of qualification are met. The practice of home-owners building their own buildings with an Indian mistri should also be phased out. Make it a requirement for this to be done only by licensed contractors.

Recently the Contractor’s Association (CAB) demanded that since even the government was facing a shortage of engineers, the requirement for contractor’s to have an engineer for the job should be dropped. To me this sort of expediency is further proof of the lack of commitment among our contractors to the principle of public interest. The appropriate solution to a shortage should be to require engineers to hired from India or if that is not possible, for the government to undertake less work. What’s the rush? Haste makes waste.

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