Clear problems from glass walls in typhoon

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 September, 1999, 12:00am

The damage sustained by Immigration Tower, Central Plaza and other buildings was predicted five years ago.

Glass curtain walling started in Hong Kong in 1980. At that time, as deputy chairman of the Hong Kong Insurance Association I strongly opposed its use. No other modern city in an area seriously exposed to tropical cyclones was using it then, nor do they now - or only under the strictest controls, on which we cannot rely to be applied here.

Glass curtain walling had been used very little when Ellen struck in 1983 but, in the following years, this 'cheap' form of construction was expanded throughout the main business areas.

In 1994 Immigration Tower, which happened to be directly opposite my office, lost 40 to 50 sheets of glass. This was not in a typhoon but only a strong winter monsoon. At that time Central Plaza had just been completed and the damage was clearly caused by a vortex between the eastern side of Immigration Tower and the scalloped western corner of Central Plaza. Clearly no wind tunnel testing had been conducted beforehand or, if it had been, the standard of construction on Immigration Tower was sub-standard.

I raised the issue with several consulting engineers and their view was that if Hong Kong is hit by a super typhoon (York was only a small one), many of the glass curtain-walled buildings would be reduced to skeletons. In the process their contents would be ripped out and blasted downwind, damaging other office buildings and hotels, creating considerable threat to life.

Last year my company Quiktrak designed for Guardian Assurance's Asian head office a multimedia CD-Rom providing information on telecommunications risks, which has now been distributed throughout the world. We used Immigration Tower/Central Plaza as a model for what one should not do.

We are lucky York was only a small typhoon. Nevertheless can anything be done before we are hit by something serious? I doubt it - without rebuilding large sections of Hong Kong. On this basis I assume the Government will continue to brush the problem under the carpet.