Building failure is a squalid human sin


A building with only but a few stories imploded- in conditions of ordinary weather- in Huruma, Nairobi and it made for an embarrassing story and put building contractors, structural engineers, NCA on a bad rap.

But take a look. This is fairly well arranged rubble: just a stack of very likely outsized slabs, mostly intact, lying on each other.


The manner in which the building failed is suggestive of why it actually failed. Well there could be a host of reasons but methinks, most of all, the building failed for a far too fundamental reason: weak columns.

Someone overdid the beams and paid less heed to the vertical structural members.

Now, there has been an inglorious scourge of buildings and even perimeter walls collapsing in this country and most other developing countries for far too long. And it is prosaic that the consequences are dismal: building contractors suffer ill repute, people whether they are occupants, construction workers or innocent children playing are injured, and there are scores who lose their lives in just about every structural accident that happens. In 2013 alone, news reports of collapsing buildings claimed lives of more than 60 people in Africa.

Therefore, structural integrity is far serious a thing to not talk about.

An engineering structure whether is a car or a boat or a building is only effective if it can meet it’s design function and safely so.
Take a good example of the human body which is a living structure. It is designed to resist the ordinary forces it will encounter during it’s life structurally speaking or otherwise. Just like any structure the human body is meant to last only so long but it never tumbles on its own weight like some buildings.

In the earlier centuries before there were any elaborate strength calculations, engineering structures a few metres high would stand safe and engineers like Thomas Telford would design and successfully build suspension bridges using what I would call ‘practical methods’.
But several decades later, here we are with advanced and pretty demystified construction procedures, a variety of machinery, artificial working models, application softwares to aid in design and yet we have simple buildings with only but a few stories crumbling in fairly ordinary weather. It beats logic.

So then in the modern construction world, as long as buildings are concerned, technology is not culpable for structural failure nor are strength calculations, nor is it legislation for we are wonks with very smart policies.
Structural soundness or lack thereof is pegged on human agencies, what Prof E.J Gordon calls applied theology in structures. It is indeed human influence that constitutes in this menace for the most part:

Nine out of ten accidents are caused, not by more or less abstruse technical effects, but by old fashioned human sin often verging on plain wickedness. It is squalid sins like carelessness, idleness, won’t-learn-and-don’t-need-to-ask, you-can’t-tell-me-anything-about-my-job, pride, jealousy and greed that kill people (on the construction site).”
Prof E. J Gordon

It may be a bricklayer who has no qualms about calling himself an engineer, a construction worker who loots construction materials, a contractor who hires incompetent workers to the site, a supervisor who is indolent or an NCA official  who accepts a bribe.

But making the case that building failure is a human making does not quite help solve the problem. It only underscores it. Everyone in the building team must do their work with integrity. Buildings are human spaces and human life must not be at stake.

Boniface Sagini


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