Hong Kong must repair its decaying buildings – with public funds if necessary
- Maintaining the city’s ageing buildings is a costly and complex process involving multiple parties
- It is also closely related to urban renewal, and the Urban Renewal Authority must take a lead to improve the living conditions of people in run-down areas
In an architectural history class, my professor noted that architecture was anything but creating artificial built environments, and that our creativity would always submit to the power of nature. This is why the best works that stand the test of time are vernacular architecture that draws from the native context and serves local needs.
In an urban environment that demands density and efficiency, rarely do we come across this kind of architecture in cities. Instead, most modern buildings are built with concrete and steel because they are cost-effective, structurally sound, durable and safe against fire hazards.
Concrete is strong in compression and steel performs well in tension, which is how they work together in spanning floor slabs between beams and columns. Spalling, or deterioration, happens because the thin protective layer of concrete at the bottom of the steel is stretched under tension.
The buildings will not crumble because the compressed concrete above and the tensioned steel bars still work in sync to hold up the slabs, but spalling should be repaired to prevent further deterioration.
Ageing buildings are closely related to urban renewal. Except for a handful of structures with architectural and historic value, most decaying urban areas will be demolished and rebuilt. In run-down neighbourhoods where developers do not have full title ownership, they often do not want to pay to repair the existing buildings as they are working on buying them out.
What role does the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) play in this? One of the URA’s stated objectives is “addressing the problem of urban decay and improving the living conditions of residents in old districts”. The URA has a maintenance subsidy scheme to help owner-occupiers with up to 80 per cent of the repairing works, with a cap of HK$40,000 (US$5,100) per unit, while elderly owner-occupiers aged 60 or above can receive subsidies up to 100 per cent, with a cap of HK$50,000 per unit.
Whether the amounts are enough depends on the complexity of the structure, the number of units in the building, and the extent of the repair needed. What we truly need is an accurate assessment of both the owner-occupier’s status and the individual building conditions.
While the URA plans to partner with private developers on large-scale gentrification projects, it should also put comparable attention on the less-profitable renewal of decaying neighbourhoods without tearing them down.
It is debatable whether the repair costs should be charged back against the owners or the owners’ corporation leaders should be prosecuted if they ignore statutory orders. The issue involves liability and responsibilities, and it should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Substantial government investments with the expectation of long-term financial returns are understandable and necessary as long as they are well-managed, strategically planned and have a vision for the future of Hong Kong. Compassionate spending on social capital while repairing our decaying urban conditions should be equally important, as the price of public safety and well-being far outweighs any price we pay repairing ageing buildings. This is the moment to be socially generous.
Dennis Lee is a Hong Kong-born, America-licensed architect with years of design experience in the US and China