Urban planning

Hong Kong property prices will rise if procedures tightened for construction design changes, engineers say

Members of city’s Institution of Engineers warn that property market will be biggest loser if professionals are given less leeway over project revisions in wake of scandal at MTR Corporation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2018, 7:33pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 3:49pm

Members of Hong Kong’s top engineering body have warned that the property market will be the biggest casualty if the government tightens procedures for design revisions to major construction projects following a shoddy work scandal at the city’s railway operator.

Their note of caution comes after the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) this week formally moved to seek government clarification on the steps engineers must take when amending designs, and the legal liability they face for any missteps.

The professional body, comprising more than 34,000 members, will put together a working group to examine the relevant laws. It will also call on Hong Kong’s Buildings Department to spell out exactly if and how the freedom of registered engineers and other authorised persons may be curbed regarding design changes.

The institution is now headed by Ringo Yu Shek-man following the resignation of former president Philco Wong Nai-keung, effective from Saturday.

Members warned that less leeway for engineers could have a negative impact on the property market and engineering sector at large, as gaining government approval for every minor change would delay construction and eventually incur extra costs for homebuyers.

The debate is just one of the damaging ripple effects from a construction fiasco at Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation over substandard work on its HK$97.1 billion (US$12.37 billion) Sha Tin-Central link, the city’s most expensive railway project.

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The scandal sent shock waves through the construction sector after it emerged that the corporation had omitted key details from a report to the government on changes to the design for diaphragm walls on a platform under construction at Hung Hom station. The same project was also plagued by the use of substandard steel bars and the disappearance of 2,000 couplers that connected those bars.

Registered structural and geotechnical engineer Ngai Hok-yan, an HKIE member, said there was a “grey area” in the city’s buildings laws.

After the first consent has been given by the Buildings Department for a project, further approval for minor changes to building superstructure and drainage work is not required. But changes that affect the overall structural stability of a building are not considered minor.

“In other words, for minor changes, engineers can still proceed with the work and submit a finalised plan later,” Ngai said. “But there have been cases where the authorised persons thought the changes were minor but the department thought otherwise and required them to stop work until they obtained approval.”

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He said some members were concerned that if they did not submit minor design changes that later were deemed major by the department, they would run the risk of being sued for failure to seek approval.

“The government needs to spell this out clearly,” Ngai said. “But if we need to submit the revised plan every time to the department for approval, which will require suspension of work for two to three months, it will cause long delays to a project and incur a lot of interest, resulting in rising property prices. A lot of social resources will be sacrificed.”

Peter Wong, a former HKIE president and a current observer of the body, earlier said a clear definition was lacking on “minor changes”. It would be a disaster for the construction sector if engineers needed to wait two to three months for every design change, he believed.

Ngai added that confusion had arisen about the legal liability engineers faced in such circumstances following the MTR Corp’s misadventures.

The MTR scandal resulted in the high-profile departures of projects director Philco Wong, three general managers on the Sha Tin-Central link and early retirement for CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen. Police were even called in to investigate the episode.

Criminal liability fears hit Hong Kong engineering sector after MTR construction scandal

Ngai said the rail link was a public works project for which prior approval for design revisions was exempted under the law.

“That’s why some members feel baffled by this whole thing. The contractor is entitled to exemptions for a public works project, so why have police been called in to investigate?” he said. “Will other responsible engineers run afoul of the law without knowing it?

“That’s why the HKIE needs to protect members’ interests and seek clarification from the government about whether the responsible engineers still enjoy a certain degree of free hand under the law.”

The Buildings Department said it had so far not received any formal request from the institution for a meeting to discuss the issue.

“In fact, there are already established communication platforms, such as regular meetings, with the stakeholders, including the HKIE, on matters of concern,” it said.