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Saving money or saving lives? The snippets of conversations below are around the construction of a new high school building that will also be used as the evacuation center for a community of nearly 1000 households. The previous school building was damaged beyond repair by the super typhoon Yolanda just over a year ago, most probably due to building ‘professionals’ cutting corners ..

block testing at the National High School. Photo by Akbarnazim Modan, March 2015

block testing at the National High School. Photo by Akbarnazim Modan, March 2015

The conversations between the humanitarian, working for a international non-governmental organisations supporting the reconstruction efforts, and the local construction ‘professionals’ illustrate how it is not often about knowledge but about attitude towards that knowledge that makes the difference of safe or unsafe building practices.

(A) The architect who runs a successful design and built company.

(SE) The structural engineer, apparently 1 of 5 registered structural engineers in the entire province.

(C) The contractor also a qualified civil engineer.

Conversation 1:

(H) The humanitarian  – “Why did you specify substandard concrete blocks? “

(SE) – “We can only specify materials that are available locally. So that is why we can only specify 150 psi blocks, because that is what is available around here.”

(H) – “So if I understand you right, you can only specify what it available locally , even if it is poor quality.

(SE) – “Yes, this is our custom”

(H) – “We have contracted you to build design and engineer a school that will also be used as the communities’ evacuation centre …. i believe 400 psi concrete blocks are required.”

(SE) – “ yes, but they are not available around here and they will be very expensive.”

(H) – “ What if I say that we aim to save lives and not save money.”

(SE) – “oh i understand, ma’m, if this is what your NGO requires, then we will make sure to use the stronger blocks”

The National High School after Yolanda hit. Photo by http://www.projectsulangan.com

The National High School after Yolanda hit. Photo by http://www.projectsulangan.com

Conversation 2:

(H) – Why do you draw the rebar bent on your drawings, but you are not enforcing this on site?”

(SE) – “It is not important to bend the rebar, it is our custom.”

(H) – “… so why did you draw it in your drawing?”

(SE) – “ It is like this in the Philippine building code. But the Philippine building code  is based on the US building code. In the US they have multiple hazards, this does not happen in the Philippines, that is the reason we don’t have to bend the rebar.”

(H) – ” hmm really? We are both in an earthquake prone zone – classified by the Philippine Building Code as ‘severe’ – AND you have just experienced the strongest typhoon to ever make landfall?

(SE) – “o,  if the NGO requires it then we can bend it from now on”

2 thoughts on “saving money or saving lives?

  1. Thank you, great insight from such a short piece!
    It seems to me that engineers are very knowledgeable and are adapting to complex realities. The fact that they only supply the correct services to clients who insist on them seems to reflect the sad fact that many clients were willing to turn a blind eye before. One can also hypothesize that those same look-away clients were given extra cover because they knew they could shift the blame to the “local” engineer and the problem would go away. The conversations above hint that the engineers perfectly understand that taking the blame and saying “local custom” is part of the game with some clients.
    As a final idea: if you were ignorant of building codes, cut corners without the tacit consent of clients, and didn’t enter into “don’t-ask don’t tell” with your clients, do you think you’d do well as an engineer in these conditions? You’d have to think the opposite is the case.

  2. Pingback: Boundary workers: a foot in every sector and our fingers in many pies | {FAVEL issues}

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