There is no Quality Control in Construction
An interview with a professor from RTU, the Director of Institute of Building and Reconstruction – Leonīds Pakrastiņš.
Two tendencies govern the construction industry — cheapness and prettiness, and neither a design engineer, nor an engineer, nor an expert can afford to do their job accurately – that is what a professor at Riga Technical University the Director of Institute of Building and Reconstruction L.Pakrsatiņš states in the interview. A candid conversation about the “kitchen scraps” of the modern-day construction industry.
What is your opinion why was possible the occurrence of the Zolitūde accident?
The society wants to find out the only culprit responsible for the accident, but that wouldn’t be right if during the investigation we found out that some specific paver or any other worker had permitted a mistake. Based on the publically available information, I can conclude that there is not one culprit. As my own experience and other equal examples worldwide prove – a collapse occurs when a number of requirements, at least three, have been violated. Some mistakes have been permitted during the first stage of inspection, some inaccuracies have been made in the structural calculations, in the execution of construction works, and then natural disasters come. A chain of diverse adverse conditions occur at the same time.
The fact that the roof collapsed is rather natural. Unfortunately, the system of collective irresponsibility has been developed, and I consider that the government should bear a great deal of responsibility for what happened, for the country has disassociated from the quality control in the construction industry. There used to be the State Construction Inspection; during the financial crisis, it was admitted that it is not any more necessary and its functions were transferred to other organizations, such as the local authorities, Consumer Rights Protection Centre, insurers and associations. The reason why the system was changed was that it was considered that everything will be adjusted by the market. As it has turned out, the market has not adjusted anything, especially if we talk about the safety issues. I believe that the questions of safety cannot be adjusted by the market; it is a function of the state.
The State Construction Inspection is not the main and only panacea, but it had a greater capacity. Now, every municipality has its own construction board, but the question is who supervise the work of such construction boards. Their work is controlled by nobody. Nobody controls how they fulfil their functions.
From what Riga Construction Board has told about the case of “Maxima”, it can be understood that in the reality they do not check anything, except for the documentation. Is this a correct approach?
Of course not, but they can’t check because there is no capacity. To a great extent, our laws are formed by lawyers. From the legal point of view everything is in order, all the papers are signed, but no inspections are carried out.
It is natural for people to permit mistakes, but being aware of that, exist quality assurance procedures. For example, in the manufactories where something is produced such procedures exist, but I regret to realize that no quality control system exists in the construction industry.
What are the reasons for that? I read the preamble to the new construction law shortly before our meeting (it has to come into effect as of the 1st February 2013 – editor’s note). The law stipulates that the aim of that law is to reduce bureaucracy and to simplify the procedures of administration of the construction industry. Maybe I am exaggerating, but I just try to question myself – what information is spread to the society? Well, I interpret it like this – let’s make another law that disturbs the money making process even less. The procedures of quality and safety control, as I believe, have been insufficient – but, the upcoming law says, that we don’t need even that much. That interferes in our money making process.
In construction dominate two tendencies – cheapness and prettiness. Of course, there are qualitative design engineers and architect bureaus - I am talking about the tendency. What I propose is to turn the tendency to safety and quality.
Currently, such work environment has been developed so that the actual contractor cannot execute his work accurately even if he wants to do so because he simply cannot afford it. A situation has occurred in the market where the employer has a significant influence. Considering that the most important criterion is price, the general contractors do not have workers themselves; they employ a large number of subcontractors. For instance, our design engineers are subcontractors as well. They cannot afford to execute their work accurately due to the market price. A design engineer is to be considered to be an obstacle on the construction site. He interferes posing some sort of safety questions and hinders the development of the process as rapidly as it had been anticipated by the general contractor. A contractor cannot execute the work accurately, and he is compelled by deadlines, budget, and the employer.
The same applies to experts. One of the quality mechanisms in the construction of publicly significant buildings is an independent expert [who makes expertise on the construction project]. Unfortunately, in our situation an expert cannot be entirely independent if he wants to stay in the business. If he really makes an independent expertise, he will not be able to get orders because his requirements will be too high. There are cases when a design engineer declines to sign a solution; in that case a new design engineer is being hired who does that. Not many people remain in this business. One thing is if a person can sign a contract with his conscience, but there are many people who either have left the country or simply do not stay in that business. For example, I am now engaged in education.
A colleague of mine had an experience when he making an expertise of a project posed a number of questions why the specific construction had been solved exactly in that particular way. He did not understand that. Instead of an answer, he received a legal letter with a threatening text, saying that he hinders the process, incurs costs and they will apply to court; they weren’t trying to talk about his questions and give answers to his questions.
What else can be said about the construction industry per se? It is clear that government has to bear responsibility, but other institutions are partially responsible as well. In spite of all out governments, architects have managed to protect their interests very well. To us a project manager historically is an architect bureau. Fame and glory to them for managing to do it, but architects also account for the part that is closer to them, namely for the beauty, and they pay less attention to the safety.
Constructors used to be less organized. There is such organisation Latvian Association of Civil Engineers, which would take care for the image of the industry. Unfortunately, I have to admit that they are too much engaged in the business of the certificates. Maybe it is impolitely put because mostly they have been fighting for the existence of the certificates; it is one of their sources of income. But in such a way they have lost the entire industry and have destroyed the image of the industry. I consider that we should have learnt from our colleagues – architects, but unfortunately it has not been done. Incidentally, in case of Zolitūde everybody has a certificate issued by the Latvian Association of Civil Engineers. (Certificates have been suspended to seven of them) – the editor’s note).
Are you saying that the certificates are issued without criteria strong enough?
Yes. When drafting the construction law, there was a dispute whether or not a certificate is even necessary. I consider that it has meaning, that is one of the confirmations of a qualification; however, only one of the many, and not necessarily the main. Quality involves persistent work.
Do they collect money for these certificates?
Of course they do. One of the requirements to get the certificate is training; and they offer training, also for money. To some degree, it is business.
Would it have been correct if this process was regulated by some state institution?
As far as I understood from Mrs. Oša [Director of the Department of Housing and Construction of the Ministry of Economy], there are some preliminary plans [in this direction], but we do not take part in it, we do not know what is going on.
In what way this system can be broken then?
A couple years ago we established Latvian Structural Engineers' Association; it is a non-profit organization. We are engaged in educating our colleagues, we have organized workshops free of charge, mainly for the design engineers. A year ago we developed a project of professional norms for the contents and formatting. Abroad there exists such concept as “good practice”. So that it wouldn’t seem that we only criticize everything, we have defined what our work should look like. We started with that, because it is important when talking exactly about safety.
For instance, in case of an airplane crash the so-called black box is searched for. Only when the black box is found, the aviation engineers may judge what has happened with the airplane. Our suggestion is that the design engineers should be obliged to submit to a construction board the so-called calculations volumes that reflect all the data output, calculations or inspection procedures. Drawings is just the outcome, prior to that an accurate work with numbers is carried out. The calculations volume may substantially facilitate the expertise because owing to a volume like that experts can tell imediately what has been done and what has not been done. Today, an expert read a drawing and in order to carry out expertise in an accurate way, he has to recalculate everything; he has to do the entire work of a design engineer. You might understand that yourselves that it is not possible. A calculations volume can be considered as the black box [of a design]. In case of trouble, one would go to a construction board and from a volume like this would evaluate whether everything has been done correctly. Now it is not required. A plane flies without the black box.
Secondly, construction boards even restrict the bulk of the volume. For example, there are the main drawings available, but it is possible not to apply unit solutions. But in case of Zolitūde, a unit solution is one of the main sore points. If the volume were in the construction board, we could take it and evaluate the situation. At the moment, we do not have such option. Of course it might be attributed to conspiracy theories but I have a suspicion if only it has not been done on purpose.
Also other construction industry participants could develop standards, for example, for expertise where it would be described in detail what inspections have to be carried out. If such a standard existed, it would be also easier to determine its price depending on the volume of the executable work volume and quality and not on the ambitions of an expert.
What functions should a construction board have?
For instance, a construction board could order expertise for nationwide construction projects. Now the employer itself orders expertise and to some degree he is interested that it would happen faster.
In addition, a construction board could batch information on all the accidents. It is better to learn from other peoples’ mistakes, not from our own. It is clear that no contractor wants to admit his mistakes. The state construction board can compile the mistakes and tell the professionals what the reasons were.
This far Latvia was “lucky” that roofs collapsed without casualties; but they still collapsed and these cases were hidden. As far as I know, in Finland criminal responsibility may be incurred for the hiding of an accident.
That is one of the ways how an employer could evaluate the quality of works. At the moment, we are only aware of the [construction companies’] turnover but how accurately are the works being executed? If such a database existed it would be easier to understand who is better, worse, safer.
Also now, and accident has occurred; someone has permitted a negligent mistake, but nothing is being stopped, “RE&RE” continue building all the buildings. For instance, in the UK in case like this all the operations of a [construction] company would be stopped. It deliberately leads to a company’s losses, but it has to be taken into consideration. “RE&RE” operation should be stopped as well as operation of all the other involved parties – operation of the architects’ bureau and of the construction supervision. It is easier to avert consequences in an earlier stage, not when a building is completed.
During the weekend, “RE&RE” announced that the construction board had inspected other construction projects they were working on and they had been admitted as being safe. Is it even possible to inspect the substance of something in such a short period of time?
It is not possible. Documentation most probably is done, but as you understand documentation does not mean anything.
Also a suggestion to evaluate projects anonymously can be considered. There is no need to search in faraway lands; such system exists in Estonia. Now we are ordering that to ourselves, but if it was anonymous we might perhaps to receive a more accurate evaluation.
We also consider that it is necessary urgently to switch to new European norms, eurocode. In our country the dual approach has been accepted by finding excuses in the budge; both Latvian Construction Standards and Eurocode are operating simultaneously.
Unfortunately, the old Latvian construction standards system has not been maintained for some 25-30 years. It simply has morally become out-of-date. According to the Latvian standards, buildings turn out cheaper. Let’s take another example – the collapses roof of “Depo” in Liepāja. That roof had designed following the Latvian construction standards. The old snow load has been regulated in that standard but since then climate in Latvia has changed a long time ago. The Latvian standards insist that snow should be cleaned from roofs, but when designing following the new standards, sufficient load of snow should be calculated so that there would not be a need to clean it at all. Of course, at the beginning it would cost more because constructions would be larger, but they buildings would be safer.
Going back to the case of Zolitūde, the progressive collapse has occurred in “Maxima” store – one construction collapses and drags along the rest of them. Nothing has been said about that in the Latvian standards, but it has been dome in the European standards. If the building had designed following the Eurocode, the accident would have claimed fewer lives.
What does it mean? A roof should not collapse like a falling row of dominos?
Yes, Eurocode provides for such accident. Terrorism problems have been taken into consideration, and it is considered that an engineer has to make a provision for a case when one column breaks or trusses collapse.
What is your opinion about the work of construction supervisors? How strong is this mechanism?
I have a good example to compare with. Some time ago I took part in the first round reconstruction of the former VEF Factory [“Domina” shopping mall], which was done under the construction supervision of Italian colleagues following an Italian design. The Italian colleague inspected every bar for 100%, every work section. It was not allowed to go on with the execution of works while he had not accepted the previous one. There were some details that he asked to remake and when they had remade he accepted them and only then it was possible to go on with the works. He basically lived on the construction site and controlled all the stages of the construction process.
Our construction supervisors have 10 objectives in the entire city, and they hardly once a week come and sign documents basically without taking a look at what is going on on the construction site. But people tend to make mistakes. Or for instance, it is possible that a specific specialist is not qualified enough, he may not understand something. Therefore, there are other institutions whose purpose is to find out what he is doing wrong. If everything has been checked for 100%, there are lesser chances to make mistakes. If a column on the first floor has been changed immediately while the rest of the floors have not been built, it can be done much easier.
It is a matter of money; unfortunately, little resources are provided for the construction supervision, and in order to survive they have to undertake a number of projects.
Even if a construction supervisor notices some issues, he is not interested in stopping the construction process although he is entitled to do so, because in that case everybody looses. The construction period is prolonged for the investors, it won’t be possible to commission the building [as planned], all the rest of the involved parties will receive their money either later or they will receive less, and the only responsible for all this is the engineer. It is only logical that he tries to affect this process less. A system like this works in such a way that it diminishes the quality. If somebody raises the bar on quality, it is done on his own account. If he goes on like this, he will most probably go broke, won’t be able to earn money.
There have been opinions that it was incorrect to implement the Zolitūde design – a store and an apartment house – in two layers and that that it was what influenced the safety. What would you say about this?
There are many different opinions on this matter, also that the green roof should not have been built. But such buildings exist. It is a common practice to build in two or more layers. It is also a matter of money; investors cannot predict how the project will do. If it goes well, he builds another layer. In case of Zolitūde something had gone wrong with the quality control procedures.
As far as we know, the roof operation system had been changed, and that is one of the causes. In the first round of delivery, only the green roof without the children playground was planned. I don’t know if it was agreed with the design engineer (“HND grupa” approved it had been done – editor’s note).
Is it acceptable that a roof is being built while trade is happening in the store on the first floor?
Following the design, a contractor has to develop a project of the execution of the construction works. Such project must exist, and everything must have been stipulated. From the human point of view, it does not seem acceptable to me, but if everything was done correctly, it could not have been done.
You said that all the systems in our construction are directed towards fast money making. Which was the moment when it deviated towards this tendency?
Already after the fall of the Soviet Union. There have been many different governments; it is hard to tell... everybody is interested in deriving a profit.
Lawyers start discussing technical issues; it is a tendency. People listen to the design engineer’s opinion the least, although he is responsible for the safety. Lawyers consider the technical matters to be insignificant; to them important are the legal ones. You can see by yourselves what consequences of the aforementioned are in the construction industry – from the legal point of view everything is alright, but we have experience an accident. According to the lawyers, the roof has collapsed illegally; according to all the documentation, it should not have happened.