Inspectors slow to condemn buildings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2011, 12:00am


The burden of relocating residents and co-ordinating with other government agencies may make Buildings Department officials reluctant to declare a block dangerous, according to a construction expert.

Chan Chi-ming, head of the Vocational Training Council's construction department, said officials who condemned a building needed to help provide temporary accommodation for its residents, in collaboration with the Housing, Home Affairs and Social Welfare departments.

Fellow engineers and social workers believe this might explain why the department is so unwilling to declare a block dangerous. They said the government tended to see such relocations as a big task.

According to testimony at the inquest into the collapse of the To Kwa Wan tenement, government surveyor Wan Chi-wai found, after a site inspection two months before the disaster in January last year, that the building was only 'potentially dangerous'.

Warning signs - including weakened columns exposing rusty steel bars and chunks of falling concrete - should have been enough to alert the department to the danger and to conduct structural tests and evacuate the block, independent expert witnesses told the coroner.

Another reason for the Buildings Department's reluctance to issue a closure order is to prevent abuse by owners. As officials told the inquest, some owners asked the department to declare their properties dangerous in the hope that it would then order the eviction of tenants and demolish the building. In return, the owners pay only the demolition fees and reclaim a site vacated for redevelopment.

Chan, a building engineer, criticised the department's lack of clear criteria for determining whether a block faced 'potential' or 'immediate' danger.

'The phrase 'no immediate danger' upsets me. It could mean the block so tagged can cause danger, not now but at any time in the future,' he said. 'This doesn't make sense. I don't really know the difference between the two.'

Chan also pointed to a problem in the way the department's officials carried out checks.

In the To Kwa Wan case, Wan conducted only a 'visual inspection', without using tools or instruments. He entered only the ground-floor shop and not the subdivided flats on the upper storeys. His successor, who checked the site 16 days before the collapse, limited her inspection to a view from outside the building.

Chan said visual inspections should also involve using hand-held equipment such as ultra-sound tools to establish the depth of cracks. 'To look only from outside is the most inappropriate thing to do,' he said.

The Buildings Department declined to comment last night.