When a major building like Melcom collapses, who is to blame?

Pictured: Melcom’s Achimota department store before and after the collapse on Wednesday, November 7, 2012. Photo sourced from Peace FM Online.

Perhaps the short answer should just be: everybody. Because the Achimota Melcom building’s collapse highlights serious weaknesses in planning regulations and building code enforcement in Accra.

When the multistory commercial shopping complex for the Melcom shopping chain collapsed on Wednesday, November 7th in Achimota in Accra, it was not only a horrible disaster but also a testament to the potential impacts when contractors cut costs and take shortcuts in building construction and city governments fail to efficiently enforce building and land use codes. The incident, which occurred in the morning shortly before the shop was to open to the public, trapped dozens of employees inside. When the search for bodies ended today, 67 survivors and 12 dead have been taken from the building. Melcom started operating in the building less than a year ago.

In the midst of the (mostly political) finger pointing over who is at fault, blame is being cast in many directions – at the building’s owner, whom many including the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) claimed had no building permit; at the store management, whom employees and others claim were negligent for failing to address the reported cracks in the building’s structure; and at the AMA, for allowing a building with no permit to come up, and be running for nearly a year.

The unfortunate and unsurprising reality is that many of the factors that contributed to the building collapse – including constructing buildings without permits and faulty building practices and low-standard building practices – are not new.

The Construction Permit Process

The AMA has set out an eight-step process for acquiring a building permit (http://ama.gov.gh/ama/page/5283/building-permit), which provides government permission for the construction of any building. According to DoingBusiness.org’s research, the process for obtaining a permit in Ghana for construction takes more than 12,000 Ghana cedis (about US$ 6,600) and a timespan of about 4 months. It requires approval for planning schemes, architectural and engineering designs, and the opportunity for government input on the particular structure’s public health and fire protection readiness. In addition, a building should be inspected at a minimum of five points during the construction process: after the foundation has been laid, after completion of the first (ground) floor, and following completion of the lintel, roofing and the overall structure.

The permit process is key for identifying and addressing any building issue, in terms of materials, standards and techniques; it’s also key for determining and outlining the permitted range of uses for the space (e.g., commercial or office versus manufacturing).

Both the mayor of Accra and member of parliament for the area have confirmed that the building lacked the necessary construction permit. Although these individuals have both vowed to champion this specific instance, this incident provides a teaching lesson – when individuals and business are allowed to skirt around building standards, they may save money in the short term (probably their likely immediate goal), but they are also lowering the standard, quality and safety of the buildings that they are constructing –which can have important and negative long-term effects.

Other Factors At Play

News reports have indicated and indicted a number of other factors in the building collapse. In a number of reports, individuals have hinted at the use of the space. In one report, the owner mentioned that the Melcom management were using the top floor levels for heavy equipment, a use that was out of sync with the building’s structural supports and intended usage. In another report, Melcom management said they felt assured the space was safe because of the presence of high-standard businesses, like well-known banks, who also took residence in the structure.

Many are already citing shoddy construction work of the contractor as a culprit. Ghana’s National Disaster Management Organization blamed poor foundations for the collapse.

One of the common challenges is in building contractors who skim on the necessary ratios of concrete (which, with its ever-increasing price points, is becoming more and more expensive). This cost-cutting measure can weaken the overall structure of a building, making it susceptible to cracks and collapse.

In a recent statement by the Ghana Institute of Surveyors on the incident, the organization highlights a core challenge: that built environment professionals like architecture, quantity surveyors, engineers and urban planners “are not always involved in the design and the construction of…buildings, especially when it is a private effort and informal sector.”

Lessons Learned?

Perhaps the best thing that can come out of this event is if developers, planners, architects, engineers, building owners, the AMA and other related agencies would truly respond to the clarion call to prioritize government standards on buildings, city planning and enforcement.

At this point, the news reports indicate massive amount of finger pointing on all sides, but the blame could — and probably should — be shared by a number of players. Not only the building’s owner (who, incidentally has had a number of his buildings in Kumasi evacuated due to sub-bar construction work), and not only the contractor and store management in this instance, but more generally, all these kinds of players who evade and skirt government standards: Those who pay bribes to get around government enforcement, those who accept bribes at the detriment of those impacts, those who cut corners to save costs. In the end, someone always pays. Whether its those who have to deal with interruptions in traffic flows or their overall living standards when inappropriate buildings are cited in environments, or the victims of shoddy construction work, we live in a universe where each action has a reaction, and in this case, it’s not always a good one.