The Construction Horror Show

UPDATE:

One solution to reduce the vulnerability of your house is to have your foreman properly trained.  I now offer a training course that will lead to participants receiving the Diploma of Walbrent College.  See article on  Walbrent College for further details.

Regards, Grenville

END UPDATE

The Government of Barbados has several roles.  One critical role is to regulate industries that are out of control.  The residential construction industry is out of control.

We have been fortunate as a country to have had a Government with the vision to establish national building standards.  The Barbados National Building Code was published 15 years ago, just before the current unprecedented building boom.  The Code includes much of the technical advice that the following professionals normally provide their clients:

  • Civil Engineers
  • Structural Engineers
  • Mechanical Engineers
  • Electrical Engineers
  • Architects
  • Planners.

Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the Government has not required that builders follow the national building standards.  In my opinion, requiring builders to follow the minimum building standards does not require the proclamation of any new laws.

Last weekend, I visited some residential building construction sites hoping that I would see some improvement in the residential construction building practices.  There was little good construction available for me to photograph, but the ubiquitous sub-standard construction completely filled my 1 Gigabyte memory card.

I cannot blame the building contractors, not the artisans they employ.  I believe that they are simply doing the best that they know how.  They need to be aware of and comply with the minimum national building standards.  Who is to make them comply?  I believe that is one of the Government’s roles.

Your medical doctor may be gravely concerned when she examines an X-ray of your chest, or she may recoil in horror when examining the blood laboratory test results, but you may examine the same and conclude that all is well.  Why?  Because you were not trained to interpret the evidence.  I will try to help you to interpret the following photographic evidence from various construction sites at different stages of construction.

Photographs – Copyright 2007 by Grenville Phillips II.  All Rights Reserved.

img_1540.jpg

After setting out the building on site, the builder should excavate the area of the footings until he reaches a good bearing material.  He has found a sound coral formation at a shallow depth.  Very good.

img_1544.jpg

The builder then builds form work to support the concrete strip footings.  Very good.

img_1547.jpg

But what is this?  Oh please no!!!! (like all good horror shows, you get a peek at the monster before he is revealed in all of his gory).

img_1545.jpg

The builder has placed a layer of marl fill on top of the good foundation bearing rock.  He has therefore introduced the unnecessary risk of the building settling and the resultant cracked walls.  He has also introduced unnecessary work which is translated into additional project time and cost.  Quoting the national standard: “Footings shall not bear on fill material.” BNBC 2.504.4

img_1555.jpg

Oh good grief no!  The labourer has obviously taken great care in cutting this foundation trench by hand.  However, he has stopped before finding rock, which is a mere 150 mm (6″) below this.  He has introduced almost certain foundation settlement and the resulting cracks in the walls and floor, including any ceramic or stone floor tiles.  It would not have cost any more to ask the labourer to excavate an additional 150 mm to the rock.

img_1556.jpg

What the ???  The corners of the wall are not tied together properly.  Let me show you how the building code specifies that it should be done.

corner-block-detail.jpg

Not tying the structural building elements together properly can result in the building shackling out and collapsing during hurricanes and earthquakes.

img_1572.jpg

Oh dear!  The builder cannot properly compact the 600 mm (2 ft) thick layer of fill – it should be compacted in 100 mm (4″) layers.  In addition, placing that fill on the topsoil is almost guaranteeing the settlement of floors with the resulting cracked ceramic or stone tiles.  The national standard states that this type of floor “shall be prepared by (a) removing top soil and any organic material; … (d) filling with granular material, if necessary, in layers of 100 mm …” BNBC 2.507.2

img_1623.jpg

Compacting the top layer of fill only compacts the top layer of fill – not the underlying layers.  Therefore expect settlement of the floor with the resulting cracks.

img_1583.jpg

No vertical wall reinforcement, therefore the wall is vulnerable to collapse during an earthquake or hurricane.  The National standard states “Loadbearing block walls shall be reinforced vertically with minimum 10 mm mild steel bars at 800 mm centres throughout the wall.” BNBC 2.405.2 (c)

img_1582.jpg

Structurally unstable wall – no shear panel.  Therefore vulnerable to collapse during an earthquake or hurricane.  BNBC 2.405.8

img_1596.jpg

If the wall reinforcement is not accurately located …

img_1613.jpg

… then the wall is not properly reinforced and becomes vulnerable to collapse during an earthquake or hurricane.

img_1622.jpg

This is gruesome.  The national standard states: “No horizontal or diagonal chases for pipes or conduits shall be permitted unless specified by the designing engineer.” BNBC 2.405.3.

img_1597.jpg

Pressure testing the water pipes for leaks – excellent!

Like I said, I have 1 GB of photos, but I do not have the time to transfer and comment on them all.  I shall therefore adjourn here and resume on another post later.

Regards,

Grenville Phillips II – Chartered Structural Engineer

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22 responses to “The Construction Horror Show

  1. I see what you mean in most of these cases, but especially in the one with the foundation. Was that person serious? When I built my house well when my house was being built I was there every day, I only had local masons, no such animal as a contractor. No such crazy things happened. Been living in it nearly a decade now, no cracks in the floor. Not necessarily happy with everything but for the most part I think the guys tried their best.
    Things I know now would have benefited me greatly then but at least I saw nothing like those pictures you have posted above. Hmm.

  2. Pingback: Confusion In The Construction Sector Continues In Barbados Unabated «

  3. The real question is what can a person do if he is confronted with the resulting problems from a house being built in the incorrect way? What can one do to correct bad work after a house is finished? Anything?

  4. Hi Syl:

    You asked a good question. What recourse does the owner of a sub-standard constructed house have? This depends on the terms of the building contract. I would recommend that home owners make the structural requirements of the building code a part of the contract with their builder. Therefore, if there is a technical dispute, then the adjudicator can compare what was built with the contractual building standards.

    Regards,
    Grenville

  5. Really appreciate what you are doing Grenville.

    David-BU

    Hi David:

    Sorry about the delay in posting your comment. Your e-mail went into the spam folder. That should not happen again.

    Thank you for your comments.

    Regards,
    Grenville

  6. Thewhiterabbit

    Having an appropriate building code is certainly a good idea, IF it can be enforced. Enforcement does not mean passing laws, it means changing the basic underlying culture of expectation.

    I choose to register my pickup truck as a commercial vehicle because it saves several hundred dollars a year in road tax. To register the truck this way I must have the truck inspected at The Pine, by a Government Inspector. To do this I must first go to The Pine to obtain an inspection date by filling out a lot of forms that mean nothing. Then, on the day of the inspection, usually a month later, I take the truck to The Pine for the inspection. If the truck passes the inspection I must return the next day to “get the results”. I already know the results, the truck passed, because if it had not passed the inspector tells me so at the time of inspection.

    In the US, Canada, UK one takes one’s vehicle in and out all in one fell swoop, not to be confused with the one swell foop that constitutes government inspection here. Part of one productive day lost there compared to parts of three days lost here if the vehicle passes, more if it fails.

    The query, however, is does the inspection mean anything. First, I can avoid the whole process by paying an acquaintence to have the vehicle inspected. In one case that service cost $250 because the vehicle really wouldn’t pass the inspection so there was need for a little “lubrication” for the inspector, not that the vehicle was unsafe, it merely wouldn’t pass the inspection because it had a few rust holes in the fenders, a real no-no at The Pine where a clean truck is more important than a safe truck.

    The inspectors have never in all the years I have done business with them checked the alignment of headlights, checked the brakes beyond having to show that they worked, sort of, checked the horn, or wipers, actually asked me to turn on the headlights, and I could go on for quite some time detailing the omissions. They do look to make sure there are no tears in the upholstery, a real danger on the road. To give credit they do look at front-end bearings and steering components, but I can pay a “fee” to have them overlook almost anything.

    So how can I trust a building inspector who will be underpaid, overworked, and subject to the same social, economic, and political forces that have corrupted vehicle inspection at The Pine????????? It isn’t having a code, it is expecting that the code will be enforced across the board, and enforced logically and not from a persepective of the whims of various individual inspectors who may soon learn how to shake down contractors. Given what has become the norm at the top levels of Government it is really hard to fault those at the bottom levels.

  7. “Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
    Come see my shining palace built upon the sand!”
    (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

    Not saying that a soundly constructed house is an ugly house; just that this post brought that couplet to mind.

  8. Hi Titilayo:

    What came to my mind while writing the article is the Sunday school song:
    The wise man built his house upon the rock:
    The foolish man built his house upon the sand.”

    Regards,
    Grenville

  9. Well, yes, that too, of course.

  10. New on the Blog

    I see that there are so many problems with residential construction here in Barbados. How on earth do these poorly constructed foundations, walls that don’t join up properly or straight, and all the other very obvious big structure problems keep happening?

    The comment has been said there are Standards here. These so called standards are more than 15 years old! There are no Codes or Regulations that are being enforced at all!

    Some of the perspective houses being constructed are not being built with any care and attention to essential details that should be inspected long before they are permitted to continue. Very dangerous situation. Who are the inspectors? Why are there so many walls where the blocks are not even set properly? A lot of the outer walls have very little or no steel placed in the proper distance from each other to give good solid support.

    In this day and age there is no excuse for any new home being built here to be in such horrific condition and being allowed to continue to be built. Nobody is inspecting anything and obviously people that know nothing of constructing a house properly are the ones constructing most of the new homes. What will happen when these places collapse, sink, or even worse cost someone in them to lose their life!

    Hi New on the Blog:

    Your queries are very relevant and I will try to address them all.

    We do have national building standards which were published some 15 years ago; however, the relevant authorities have not adequately promoted their existence, nor encouraged their use. Therefore we have the current situation where builders do not even know that they are doing substandard work.

    There are two principal types of inspections that occur during construction. The Planning department sends their inspectors to confirm that the house is accurately set out and that it is being built generally in accordance with the approved drawings. The mortgage institution sends out inspectors to confirm that the building has reached a specified stage in order to advance more funds. Neither of the inspectors inspects the quality of construction.

    The banks’ inspectors can mislead the residential construction industry. They claim to determine the value of the as-built construction; however, in determining a value, they typically make a flawed assumption – they assume that the standard of construction is acceptable. It typically is not. What they actually determine is the cost of construction, and not the value of the house. One cannot value a well constructed house as equivalent to a poorly constructed house, yet that is normally what happens.

    You asked: “What will happen when these places collapse, sink, or even worse cost someone in them to lose their life!” Well, that has already happened, and what we did was to mourn for them, and then continue with our sub-standard building practises.

    Regards,
    Grenville

  11. Pingback: Advice for Home Owners « Weighed in the Balance

  12. The response level to national disaster is great but it’s a real shame that so many citizens take advantage of the sad situations.

    I mean everytime there is an earthquake, a flood, an oil spill – there’s always a group of heartless people who rip off tax payers.

    This is in response to reading that 4 of Oprah Winfreys “angels” got busted ripping off the system. Shame on them!
    http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2009/08/19/crimesider/entry5251471.shtml

  13. Pingback: The Worst House that the Code Will Allow | Weighed in the Balance

  14. do they even have plans and permits there.. or is it just that the people in charge of building are that inexperienced that they dont know how to read them? i have been building foundations in canada for 14 years now and these pictures make me angry.. why would someone who calls themself a “builder” allow this type of work to happen..i am moving there and hope that my way of building foundations can change the way building is done down there

    thanks

  15. Hi Cody:

    Sorry about this delayed response. I was in Haiti and Dominica for 6 weeks, and reliable Internet access was not always available.

    I have come to believe that they are simply building in accordance with what they know. However, their knowledge is insufficient.

    He who knows not, but knows not that he knows not is asleep. Wake him.

    I have been trying to wake them for over a decade now.

    Regards,
    Grenville

  16. Hi Grenville,

    I have found your posts very interesting but very scary at the same time as I know that, I nor my husband the knowledge to navigate the very threatening waters of Barbadian construction. Nevertheless, we are preparing to build our home.
    What is your opinion on the purchasing of a house plan from companies e.g Trinity Homes, Apex Construction to be modified & built on my own land? Are these companies required to abide or exceed the building code and somehow gurantee an escape from building horrors?

    Also, if purchasing a house plan, which professional would be best to determine whether the house plan selected is best suited for the land?

  17. Hi Anna:

    You have raised several issues, and I shall address each of them.

    Please note that the poor construction methods identified have been observed around the Caribbean, and I wish you well in your building experience. Please be warned that it is rare that everything will go as planned. However, it is how you handle such disappointments that make the building experience beneficial or destructive to your relationship. When the inevitable disappointments come, couples have been known to attack and blame each-other, or they have attacked and solved the problem together. Let me advise you to try the latter. Now on to your principal concerns.

    You may purchase a plan from either of the two reputable companies that you identified, or have them drawn by a draughtsperson or architect (Note: Trinity has an architect on staff). However, currently, there are no penalties for not designing properly.

    Given the size of your home investment, I would suggest the following course of action to significantly reduce the risk of experiencing the ‘horrors’.

    1. After you have obtained your plans, have some qualified person review them in order to confirm compliance with proper building safety design standards, and that the house has been designed to attract few maintenance requirements. This can be done for around $700.

    2. Before construction, ensure that your building contract contains sufficient provisions to effectively and economically resolve disputes. You can use the BAQS contract and add the necessary ‘finishing sample’ and adjudicator clauses. I have covered this in other Construction articles.

    3. During construction, have a qualified structural engineer visit your site to inspect the following (for a 2-storey house):
    a) The coral stone formation after the contractor has completed excavating.
    b) The foundation reinforcement.
    c) The ground floor reinforcement.
    d) The beam and suspended slab reinforcement.
    e) The roof beam reinforcement.
    f) The roof connections.

    Each of the six inspections may cost between $200 to $400.

    In my opinion, the collaborative effort of Architect, Structural Engineer, Civil Engineer, Environmental Engineer, and Planner should provide adequate advice on whether a house plan is suitable for the land. However, if only one of these professionals is available, then I would choose an experienced architect.

    Regards,
    Grenville

  18. Hi Grenville,
    Thanks for all this information. I am to start building next year and was recently told by a friend about a construction technique called 3D Panels or Structural Concrete Insulated Panels (SCIP). Am hearing it’s cheaper, safer etc than concrete block construction.

    What do you know about the benefits (structural integrity, cost, maintenance, scalability etc) of this technique vs concrete blocks and do you know of any homes in Barbados built successfully (ie to provisions of BNBC) via this method?

    Thanks and a blessed Christmas to you!

  19. Dear Heather:

    The structural insulated panels appear to be useful, and there are several manufacturers of the product. My concerns would be their performance during a hurricane.

    I would suggest that you ask the panel supplier for the wind speed that the panels and their connections are designed to withstand. You can also ask how the individual panels are connected. If they are welded, then they may be vulnerable during earthquakes.

    If the manufacturers are confident about selling their product in one of the most hazard prone regions on Earth (i.e. the Caribbean), then they should provide you with a test certificate from an independent lab confirming both the insulation and structural properties.

    I have seen this method of construction; however, I have not been provided with the wind rating nor test certificates, and they have not been properly examined by natural hazard; therefore, I cannot comment on whether they are likely to survive.

    If you are planning to build in 2013, then when you have selected your contractor, please do the following.
    1. Ask your builder for the name of the person supervising the work on your house each day. He may be called a supervisor, foreman, or senior artisan.

    2. Visit Walbrent.com and check if he is among the over 200 persons already trained to build properly.

    3. If he is not listed, then insist that he attend the next 10-evening certification course – for your sake.

    Best regards,
    Grenville

  20. Hi Grenville, thanks v much for this!
    Heather

  21. Reblogged this on Barbados Underground and commented:
    Grenville Phillips II is better qualified than many to address Barbadians on this issue.

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