Egypt: Ensuring building safety

Ahmed Abdel-Hafez, Friday 23 Oct 2020

Experts say that the duration of the buildings reconciliation law needs to be extended to ensure the structural safety of violating buildings

Ensuring building safety
Checking the safety of the units is a prerequisite for reconiciliation in building violations. (photo: Reuters)

The recent reconciliation law on building code violations prohibits the settlement of violations to the code concerning buildings built on state land, river embankments, or heritage sites. Settlement will also be denied on buildings that are not structurally sound and that pose a threat to dwellers.

According to the law, the owners of buildings built in violation of the building codes and applying for a settlement pay for the advisory committee obligated by law to visit the site to evaluate the building and produce a report on it.

The applicants must also bear the cost of an engineering consultant’s report that includes the blueprints of the building, the load-bearing distribution, and the thickness of the concrete pillars on each floor, as well as other engineering details based on the building’s construction specifications.

It will then be decided whether the specifications are appropriate for the activity for which the building has been built, whether commercial, offices, residential, or other.

Abul-Hassan Nassar, a member of the technical committee which drafted the reconciliation law, believes it has many positive aspects, notably categorising buildings constructed during the past three decades to identify which are structurally sound and safe for residents and which have structural flaws.

The law also identifies these flaws and decides whether they are salvageable or if the building needs to be completely or partially torn down.

Nassar recommended extending the law, which ends this month, to give advisory committees at least one year to make inspections.

He warned that the current duration of the law was too short to apply the criteria to the hundreds of thousands of applications that continue to be submitted. “The short deadline could spoil a key positive component of the law, and the inspections could become perfunctory in order to meet the deadline,” Nassar noted.

“Then we could be shocked when buildings that were settled according to the law in fact collapse,” he added.

The settlement law ends later in October on the grounds that there is already an existing law for settling building violations. The law was issued to address a long-standing problem and aims to preserve existing real estate, infrastructure, services and facilities. 

Nassar said that buildings more than six storeys high require rigorous structural safety testing at specialised laboratories to inspect the concrete used, its quality, and load-bearing capacity. “These are the main positive features of the settlement law, and if we miss out on them then the law itself would be pointless in protecting lives and real estate,” he said.

Nassar pointed to another possible structural hazard facing buildings in Egypt, namely soil type. A building could be built with the correct type of concrete in terms of size and length for load-bearing, reasonable heights, and the correct ratios of concrete mix, and still be dangerous because of the ground it stood upon.

This should be treated by specialised engineers before construction, and if it has not been this type of structural hazard can take some effort to identify, contain, and treat.

Hussein Al-Gibali, a former first deputy at the Ministry of Housing, played down the concerns raised by Nassar. He said the Unified Building Code of 2008 identified the criminal and technical liability of those involved in the construction of buildings.

An engineer who issues a certificate for any building can be criminally liable if there is a problem regarding structural safety, he said. Based on his experience at the Ministry of Housing, Al-Gibali said that most buildings in informal areas were structurally sound because they were built by the owners who live in them.

Islam Gamaleddin, an engineer who is the project manager on several private-sector projects, said that structural safety tests generally take two weeks, beginning with inspecting the foundations, sample taking, and laboratory testing if needed.

However, buildings that have been occupied for years without showing any signs of problems did not need chemical or other tests.

Gamaleddin said that as long as a building showed no cracks or sunken areas, there was no need to test it because committees made up of specialised architecture and construction engineers would be able to tell whether it was safe or not.

If the committee believed that there were cracks, subsidence, or non-residential activities that jeopardise the safety of the building, or alterations inside that could threaten it, it would carry out safety tests.

Some observers have said that the use of accelerant materials during construction to cut down on construction time might be dangerous and threaten the safety of buildings if not used in the right proportions.

Gamaleddin said accelerants were used to reduce the time needed for concrete to set and could reduce construction time from 28 days to one week. He said these materials were not hazardous because building techniques in Egypt are generally straightforward and allow small contractors to build without complicated calculations or engineering.

These contractors were more likely to increase the ratio of concrete and iron bars used in their buildings in order to ensure their structural integrity, he said.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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