Unsafe buildings in China: An accident waiting to happen

This 2012 photo shows rescue teams work to save residents of a collapsed six-story building in Ningbo, Zhejiang province.

CHINA - The recent collapse of an apartment block in eastern China has highlighted a problem that could have fatal consequences for owners of buildings erected in the 1980s and '90s, as Yan Yiqi reports from Hangzhou. Shen Dailu should have spent April 8 celebrating her 20th birthday in the company of family and friends. Instead, the young women from Fenghua in Zhejiang province spent the day in the hospital after the building in which she lived with her grandparents collapsed on April 4.

Her grandmother, with whom Shen had lived since her parents died when she was an infant, was killed in the collapse, and Shen's left leg was so seriously injured that it had to be amputated. Her grandfather was the only member of the family to escape unscathed, but only because he was out taking a walk when the 20-year-old building crumbled to the ground.

Four of Shen's neighbours were also injured in the collapse, and two of them remain in serious conditions in the hospital.

However, the collapse wasn't due to external forces, such as an earthquake or typhoon, but to poor construction techniques and the use of inferior building materials.

Erected in July 1994, the apartment block, which has now been demolished, was among the first batches of commercial housing built in the city - however, it wasn't the first from the period to suffer structural problems.

In 2009, a 22-year-old building, not far from the one in which Shen's family lived, collapsed. Fortunately, there were no injuries or fatalities because the residents had already been evacuated. In 2012, two people were killed when a 23-year-old building collapsed in Zhejiang city of Ningbo.

Further afield, 17 people died when a building in Hebei province constructed in the late 1980s fell down after heavy rainfall undermined its structural integrity.

Officially, the lifespan of residential buildings of this type is between 50 years to 100 years, but the poor quality of the apartment blocks built during the construction boom that accompanied China's reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s is now becoming a matter of national concern.

Low standards

Yang Bingde, a professor at Zhejiang University's College of Civil Engineering and Architecture, said that during the 1980s and '90s, the development of China's commercial housing sector far outstripped economic progress, a fact that led directly to the problems that are now emerging.

"At the time, the market economy had just been put in place and the standards in many industries were low. However, the country urgently needed to improve the housing situation for the growing numbers of new city dwellers," he said.

As urbanization quickened and cities expanded or were built from scratch, the average living space for residents grew rapidly, from 7.2 square meters in 1980 to 20.3 sq m in 2000.

"The (construction) industry was developing so quickly that many of the workers had no time to acquire the necessary knowledge and experience. In the meantime, poor building techniques and limited funding meant the quality of this sort of housing was hard to guarantee," said Yang, who added that construction quality wasn't a top priority for the developers.

"All they thought about was how to construct the buildings and sell them as quickly as possible," he said.

Cutting corners and costs

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Feng Bing who now runs a construction services company in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang, was a labour contractor for a number of large real estate developers in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. At the time, it was common practice to cut corners, according to Feng. "To lower the costs, some developers used inferior materials. For example, they used mud instead of standard adhesives such as mortar," he said.

However, the problems that would result from these practices were not immediately apparent, and often decades passed before they became noticeable.

"The problems appeared one by one after 20 to 30 years, and by that time many of the developers had either gone out of business or had changed their company names and identities," Yang said.

Determining responsibility for the monitoring and repair of potentially dangerous buildings is the biggest problem facing the authorities, he said, "but definitely, the residents should not have to pay for it."

Wang Damao lived for 20 years in the building that collapsed in Fenghua. He bought his 90-sq-m apartment in 1994 for 70,000 yuan ($11,250), a huge sum at the time.

According to Wang, the residents began to notice structural problems several years ago when minor cracks and leaks appeared. However, he and his neighbours were unable to discover who was responsible for the maintenance of the building.

During last year's typhoon season, the problems became more serious: Parts of the exterior walls fell away, leaving the concrete reinforcement bars plainly visible.

"Sometimes we were unable to open the doors because the entire building was sinking. During the worst periods we had to sleep with the doors open," he said.

The residents approached Jinping Subdistrict, which manages the building, and the problems were reported to high-level officials, who conducted tests. After persistent requests by the residents, in January, the building was classified as "C-level dangerous", a designation that means a building requires immediate reinforcement, according to the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

In February, a refurbishment plan was put forward, but disputes about who should foot the 4.5 million yuan bill led to its suspension. At least, until April 4.

Wang's wife was one of the people injured in the collapse, and he believes that a faster response to the residents' requests would have saved her from injury.

"Two weeks before the accident, we twice visited the municipal bureau of letters and calls to report our housing problems. We asked for a solution, but didn't receive one," said Wang.

Shen Linxiang, secretary-general of the Hangzhou Engineering and Construction Committee, said developers and construction companies are usually responsible for the quality and subsequent maintenance of the buildings they erect.

"However, just as in the Fenghua case, after 20 to 30 years many developers and construction companies simply no longer exist. Moreover, there is no governmental funding to support these programs," he said.

Shen said because the buildings constructed in the 1980s and early 90s were among the earliest commercial residential housing built in China, there is no property management service. That means there are no funds available to support necessary refurbishment programs.

"A thorough government mechanism to ensure the safety of residential buildings should be established, to conduct regular safety checks and quality evaluations, and also to determine who is responsible for the upkeep and distribution of funding," he said.

'Check and fix'

He suggested that every city in the country should conduct compulsory and thorough checks on all buildings erected in the 1980s and '90s. "These checks should not be a one-time response to the collapse in Fenghua. Local governments should ensure they are part of a regular process," he said.

On April 11, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development announced that a nationwide "check and fix" programme for older buildings would begin immediately. While he welcomed the announcement, Zhejiang University's Yang said that in addition to the safety checks and quality evaluations, the government should implement a rapid-response programme for buildings reported as being unsafe.

"I daresay there are a large number of dangerous buildings in the country that are still occupied. It's the government's duty to ensure they are safe," he said. "It was relatively lucky that the Fenghua building collapsed on a weekday morning when many residents were out - what if it had collapsed at midnight?"

Shanghai has already made moves to address the problem. Last year, the municipal government refurbished 1.94 million sq m of old apartment complexes and plans to raise that number to 50 million sq meters by 2015.

Wu Zhengqun, an architect at Zhejiang Zhongshe Engineering Design Co, said the Fenghua accident should ring alarm bells throughout the construction industry, including developers, builders and architects.

"Irresponsible individuals are ruining the industry's reputation. I think there should be a national system to trace responsibility for every building when quality problems occur," he said.

For most of the 40 families affected by the Fenghua collapse, it's only a matter of time until the government awards them compensation and a new apartment, which will enable them to get their disrupted lives back on track.

For Shen Dailu, her grandmother and many others, however, the moves have come far too late.