By Alison Luke
Construction Week investigates the standards expected of construction firms, after the building collapse in Dubai.
The recent collapse of a newly constructed building in Dubai has brought build quality to the fore and in particular the adherence to recognised standards and certifications. What is expected of construction firms and is this likely to change? Construction Week investigates.
The collapse of an eight-storey building in Deira in mid-August hit the headlines across the region. The fact that it was a new built property and there was no immediate reason for the collapse, such as a fire, heightened concern over why it had happened.
The results of an investigation by Dubai Municipality into the collapse are expected to be announced within the next few weeks. However, initial statements from the investigating committee have confirmed that aspects being included within their scope are whether suitable building materials were used in construction; whether the design of the structure was flawed; and the operational aspects of the project. One of the main ways to gauge all of these factors is whether they met approved standards and certifications.
But what does gaining recognised certifications actually mean and are the authorities likely to increase the stringency of their requirements following this latest incident?
There are a wide number of standards and certifications applicable to firms operating within the construction industry. Those that must be adhered to by law vary according to discipline and the local authority regulations, however, certain standards are now recognised globally and widely used throughout the industry.
"From a certification perspective, I would say that ISO14,001 for environment; OHSAS 18,001 for occupational health and safety; in addition, ISO9001 for quality [are among the main standards that must be adhered to in GCC countries]," states BSI Abu Dhabi general manager Ahmad Al Khatib.
In general, the certification of firms to such standards shows that they adhere to recognised methods of working that have been set out within the listed standard. The aim of doing so is to improve performance, efficiency and safety, with the certifications demonstrating the firm's achievements to outside parties. Although standards are voluntary and separate from legal and regulatory systems, they can be used to support or complement legislation.
Some of the other standards that are applicable within the industry relate to specific materials or products. "For reinforcing steel the product standard mainly used is the British Standard BS 4449: 1997," explains UK Cares executive director Ben Bowsher. "The standard requires either steel supplied by a company that has a valid accredited product certificate, which is normally supplied by Cares, or there should be a product testing regime applied, which approved each batch of steel from a non-certified source," he adds.
Such stringent quality control over products is imperative in the construction of buildings. The absence of approved and properly installed products can create major issues warns Passive Fire Protection Federation (PFPF) chair David Sugden: "[In the case of passive fire systems] you can't test the installed system you need to have the products tested in a lab in a test rig.
But unless you install the materials and products in a building to the same standard as they were in the test rig then they won't perform in the same way," he warns.
Just how strictly are the application of standards and certifications enforced in the region and are firms complying? Again this appears to vary between countries, disciplines and the size of firms involved.
"In specific sectors like construction some of the standards are regulated," assures Khatib. "In Abu Dhabi, for example, the government started an initiative this year on regulating HSE implementation for the build and construction sector," he explains.
"I understand that, in the main, steel from Cares-certificated sources are used although it is apparent that sometimes this is not the case," reports Bowsher. "I have seen steel from sources of dubious origin supplied to reinforcement fabricators in this way, when in the UAE," he warns.
In general, the international firms comply with such standards as a matter of course and also seek certifications from any subcontractors they employ. A spokesperson from a major construction industry contractor comments: "We take services and materials from companies that are registered to certain ISO systems; also, from subcontractors we want to see health and safety discipline."
There are several reasons cited by major contractors for following internationally recognised standards that are not specifically required by law. These include the ability to standardise the company's processes and services to increase efficiency; plus the ability to bid for work in markets that require the additional standards such as the oil and gas sector, municipalities and government departments.
And for those standards that are legally required, ensuring that all work is carried out within guidelines is essential in order that the final building produced can be used. "Currently, before we can pour a [concrete] slab on site we have to get the work inspected by the municipality; they have to be convinced that the supporting structure is correct," states the spokesperson. "The municipality has to sign off the slab pour and we must show these documents before can get an occupation notice on completion of the building," he explains.
So with the Deira building collapse fresh in everyone's minds, are the regulations for the region's construction industry likely to become stricter?
"Not necessarily," stated Al Khatib. "This issue is more related to companies adhering to the local law and construction guidelines imposed by the local authorities rather than not having the right law in place. Nevertheless, it might raise a need for better or stronger specifications and standards."
"The need for standards and best practices is increasing due to the nature of high-profile, huge, extremely expensive projects in the Middle East region, there is a strong demand and need for international best practices and standards," adds Al Khatib.
Economic circumstances also play a part in any tightening of and adherence to standards, making the current situation a significant issue. "In the current economic climate, where costs are being driven down, there will be more temptation to cut corners on quality," warns Bowsher.
Enforcement of the standards is made by different local authorities throughout the region. "In the UAE, for example, Abu Dhabi Municipality is in charge of enforcing HSE (14 and 18) implementation and certification to the build and construction sector of Abu Dhabi," reports Al Khatib. "PFPF member firm Warrington Fire has a role with the Civil Defence Department of Dubai in setting and maintaining standards," adds Sugden.
Penalties for non-compliance vary according to the severity of the consequences that this would invoke and could involve a warning notice, fine, removal of trading license or, in the event of a death on site, the people deemed responsible can be jailed.
And aside from potential legal consequences, operating without applying recognised standard procedures can create even more serious issues. "The penalty for occupants if a passive fire system is not properly installed is death," stresses Sugden.
So what more can be done to ensure that buildings are constructed to international standards and standards-certified products are used on projects?
"Create national building regulations, design codes and product standards and enforce their use," suggests Bowsher.
Ensuring that the message reaches a wider audience is also vital. "Establishing forums where experts and end-users can get together to discuss several related issues and share ideas and working with the local authorities on regulating many of those standards," he adds.
Into the future
One of the major forthcoming events due to take place in the standards sector is the introduction of Eurocodes. These structural codes are scheduled to come into force in March 2010 and the flexibility of their design has meant that several countries outside of Europe have already committed to adopting Eurocodes reports the BSI.
BSI is currently working to identify existing regulations for construction.
The introduction of the Eurocodes has several objectives, including the provision of common design criteria for mechanical resistance; to form a common basis for research and development, in the construction industry; and to enable the preparation of common design aids and software. They are also intended to provide a common understanding regarding the design of structures between designers, manufacturers and contractors of construction products.