A report into the construction industry following Miriam Pace’s death has warned that the sector, and in particular excavation works, was “playing Russian roulette” with people’s lives.
Prime Minister Robert Abela, who had set up the expert committee to author the report, tabled the document during a parliamentary sitting discussing a wide-ranging bill to hopefully bring the construction industry in line.
The committee, Judge Lawrence Quintano, geotechnical engineer Adrian Mifsud, architect Mario Cassar and lawyer Mark Simiana, were clear that the sector is ultimately plagued by “deep-rooted problems” and recommended a slew of changes.. Some will become law.
A key proposal is creating the Building and Construction Authority, which will regulate and enforce the whole sector. Meanwhile, it aims to provide residents with the power to demand an independent architect’s report into a neighbouring project at the developer’s expense.
However, the report shed light on some growing issues in the sector that also need to be addressed.
Most notably, they warned that the construction industry’s pervasive use of cutting rock flush with a chainsaw was “a very dangerous activity” that few dared to question.
The report says that such cuts are done under the pretext that these are necessary to isolate the neighbouring building from excessive vibration. However, it is done when it is simply impossible to identify the degree of fissuring in the rock, implying that this activity can significantly weaken the rock even before the actual excavation has started.
“The state of safety of the neighbouring structures is therefore left to chance because it is very difficult to predict the nature of the fissures before these are finally exposed. This is nothing short of playing Russian roulette with the lives of third parties,” the report said.
Excavations were a clear problem with “untrained, unlicensed or unregulated” individuals leading the practice. The committee was clear that it should be on the onus of both the developer and their architect to prove that excavation or a proposed construction is safe at all stages of its execution.
“The committee considers of concern, those instances where the conduct of the excavation process is left to the whims of the excavation contractor, under the guise of ‘temporary work’. This happens when excavation contractors are not registered in any way, and when their level of competence is not checked or regulated by anybody,” the committee said.
“Modern construction projects are much too complex to expect responsibility to be borne by a single person when there are so many different roles, and when regulation leaves much to be desired, leading to ambiguous situations of unclear or split responsibilities.”
Still, they noted that while more training is needed to improve the situation, architects should still be responsible for identifying dangerous geotechnical issues and solving them.
“This cannot be left to chance,” the report said.
The report said excavation should also be limited to certain hours of the day to safeguard residents’ health.
Enforcement, unsurprisingly, was identified as a key issue by the community.
The report noted that enforcement was weak with the main players quickly disregarding measures once they realised they were never checked upon.
The committee was insistent that checks and balances were crucial to the process, and it is the state’s duty to ensure that they were enforced. A well-equipped, competent and proper-functioning Building and Construction Agency that acts as the main enforcing arm would be vital in achieving it.
Crucially, the committee called for the introduction of a building permit, which would be entirely autonomous from the planning permit. A building permit will cover how the applicant will carry out a development, whether that’s a house, apartment, or entire block.
The committee found that the Site Technical Officer’s role, which was introduced after a series of collapses in 2019, “falls short of providing the required technical authority and participation which is required in certain building projects”.
“This shortcoming is in part because the admissibility criteria for a person to be allowed to act as STO do not raise the bar sufficiently, and in part also because the current functions of the STO are not clearly defined, and in some instances overlap with those of the other parties involved in the excavation and/or building project.”
Ultimately, the committee believed that the STO’s role would be better off re-dimensioned to become a BCA officer.
In an address in Parliament, Prime Minister Robert Abela said that he hoped that the proposed regulations served as a warning to the construction industry that no one is above the law. Both the Malta Developers’ Association and Chamber of Architects have backed the proposals.
Let’s hope new laws impose sustained change.
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