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Legislation alone can't change the building culture that kills

legal matters

While spending the summer months in Hong Kong I encountered three typhoons, one of which reached hurricane force. Another was followed by two days of 'black rain', deemed too dangerous to go out in. Such an extreme climate, combined with large and densely packed buildings and steep slopes which, during bad weather, are often the subject of landslip warnings, makes for exceptionally difficult building conditions and demands high performance standards. These requirements are addressed by a comprehensive legislative code, the scope and efficacy of which provides a useful comparison for those practising here.

The Hong Kong Buildings Ordinance sets building standards, imposes duties and grants rights. Duties are placed upon architects, among others, who in effect become responsible for carrying out the building-control function (of which more next week). Rights granted include the right of someone carrying out building work to shore up next door's building, a sensible policy in a city where many 'streets' are so steep they are actually flights of steps.

Numerous other provisions directly reflect the difficult climate and terrain. There are statutory requirements for particular information and drawings to be provided, including safety precautions for building in heavy rain, plans to show all levels of the building site and the adjacent streets, schedules of geotechnical design assumptions and, if required, excavation and lateral-support plans. The prescribed information list, part of which is mandatory, runs to six pages of the statute book. A supervision plan dealing with health and safety has to be lodged with the Building Authority.

This much I gleaned from looking at the statute book and out of the window (at the wind and rain), and from walking up too many hills. But does the regime work? As a short-term observer I am reluctant to draw conclusions, but I do have some observations.

First, there remain numerous 'illegal facades' created by 'extensions' being built onto apartments, usually well above street level. During the summer a street trader was killed when part of a building fell on her. Reports of air-conditioning units tacked onto facades falling off due to inadequate support were regularly in the headlines. Such incidents suggest a reluctance to embrace and to enforce building legislation, in particular on the small scale.

Secondly, again from very limited evidence, the safety culture on site is questionable. Listening to cases in the courts, both the two personal- injuries actions I encountered were building related. One concerned a painter who had been on top of a 4m high step ladder, not held by anyone else, painting with a roller on the end of a long bamboo pole. In the second, the claimant had been climbing down formwork. His evidence was that he had not used a staircase which was available because he would have been sacked for taking too long.

The forebear of the present legislation was a 1903 Ordinance, enacted after a series of collapses. The current Buildings Ordinance is reviewed regularly. However it seems there is still something of a gap between the legislative aspirations and what happens on the ground. In many ways this cannot be surprising in a city which tolerated the Kowloon Walled City until as recently as the last decade, with, at the time of its clearance, an estimated 30,000 residents and only eight sources of water. But for us, with our increasingly 'legislation-happy' approach, it is useful to reflect that making laws is not necessarily the great panacea; shifts in culture and perception take time, and ambitious schemes need watchdogs that bite.

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