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Pandemonium around condominiums – A public cry

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Way of living

There was a time we knew our neighbours. We knew them by names, what they were doing and even what they were planning to do next. Such a close interaction was generally required for co-existence and for mutual benefits, although, on occasions, conflicts erupted due to the invasion of privacy. 

This kind of social interaction was gradually diminished from our lives when the people moved from villages to towns and from towns to the cities seeking better public facilities and employment opportunities. Modern development projects also contributed to transform villages to towns and towns to cities and this transformation impacted on the characteristics of the social fabric as well. 

My initial professional employment with the public sector required me to wander around Colombo City suburbs and communicate with city residents. Being an out-stationed person, it was a strange feeling for me to communicate with people passively and very reserved manner. They openly resisted anyone invading their spheres of privacy.

In general terms, they were only interested about the frontage of their land and had no concerns or business with any potential impacts to the neighbouring properties. Most of their houses in elite suburbs had tall boundary walls to demarcate own territories and also to act as privacy screens.

I must note that most of them were very polite, well-mannered and disciplined. One common aspect I observed was that the majority of them knew nothing about their neighbours. The underlying expression was that the neighbours were none of their business. I believe that this is a common social phenomena in many major cities and towns in Sri Lanka. 

So, the Colombo City residents lived happily reaping the usual benefits available in a developed city. Suddenly, their way of life was disturbed during the last decade due to the frequent emergence of condominiums like mushrooms within the city boundaries. 

Recently, a Colombo City resident extensively communicated with me venting utter frustration of not knowing what was happening at her neighbouring property, having experienced severe impacts to her own way of life.

Scope of attention

This is a commentary confined to my personal views on the need of having a transparent information dissemination process for mega construction projects when such projects are planned and implemented in a sensitive social environment. 

I am no expert of social science. Hence, this article is about engineering, project management and stakeholder management aspects. Any comments on social aspects are purely general comments.

Planning and 

design phase

The planning and design of high-rise or tall buildings require detailed engineering, environmental and socio-economic investigations including broader-based risk assessments. A comprehensive feasibility study should cover this scope. 

There was a recent news clip on non-adequacy of existing water supply in Colombo to cater tothe new developments. That shows how ill-equipped we are for mega development. In developed countries, the developers have the responsibility of capital funding for the capacity enhancement of utility services including installation of new traffic lights, new footpaths and wider access roads to cater to the proposed development project. They even have to pay local authorities to develop new public facilities like recreational parks, public car parks and community halls nearby. This kind of developer contribution is an essential part of the new development projects.

Also the scope of the feasibility study must be adjusted according to the current nature of the site such as a vacant land or a site with existing structures. The usual planning mistake is the exclusion of the demolition of existing structures project from the main scope of the project and implement it as a minor project. This is a wrong approach. 

The demolition of existing structures is a part of the main project and such a project needs thorough investigation and planning. The demolition of existing structures could impact adversely to the neighbouring property assets, if proper attention is not made on the vibration, disturbance to the stabilised ground and noise generation during the execution period. It is also a matter of safety for the neighbouring assets and people.

The construction of mega structures specifically requires the carrying out of geotechnical investigations to identify under-ground conditions. In general, the loading conditions such as self-weight, dynamic wind loads, live or imposed loads, seismic forces, accidental impact loads, etc. of the proposed structure would be considered in conjunction with the characteristics of the underground soil layers to determine the suitable foundation structure. 

I am not a practising structural engineer now, although I worked as a structural engineer previously. I had further studies on high-rise building design and construction from two eminent Sri Lankan professors attached to the University of Moratuwa and the University of Melbourne, respectively. Hence, my comments on design and construction aspects are based on practical knowledge with theoretical basis.

I personally know that Sri Lankan universities have developed specialist structural engineering postgraduate programs. Hence, high quality structural engineers are being graduated annually. The Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka maintains a registry of structural engineers who are qualified to design high-rise buildings. Hence, there is no question about the technical ability of Sri Lankan structural engineers.

However, the issue is whether the structural engineers pay enough attention to the structural impacts to the neighbouring properties and whether they get the expert advice on the social impacts to the neighbours when they specify particular construction methods. I suggest project planners to document such impacts during the planning stage and incorporate solutions during design stage.

Scarce resources

The land availability within the Colombo City is limited and the land value is high. Hence, it is justifiable that the land owners would like to use the available land for their maximum benefit. It is very common to see that the extent of the high-rise building goes to the adjoining property boundary.

Although the planning laws would allow such orientation of buildings, it would create significant social issues. If the adjoining property is a single or a double storey home, the surrounding condominiums would create “confined space” or “prison” effect. Often, the natural ventilation patterns and lines of sight to enjoy natural environment are obstructed when such a development occurs. This is a social shock lasting forever for some residents.

The high-rise buildings need deeper foundation structures for structural stability reasons. Depending on the foundation type selected, sometimes, this means deeper excavations. Even if the pile foundations are selected as the option, the disturbance to the existing ground cannot be avoided due to the drilling for in-situ piles or due to force-driven pre-cast piles.

During foundation construction period, the ground water movement can be altered temporarily until it settled later. Could this groundwater movement affect foundations of the adjoining properties? Only an expert could answer this question through proper monitoring processes using test-probe holes. 

It is a common practice to carry out deep excavations to construct underground car parks for the condominiums as the road-side vehicle parking is not an option for such large buildings, especially for residential properties. The construction of this scale requires shoring of the excavated sections to maintain the structural stability. Shoring near proximities of existing buildings is a delicate construction activity.

The structural designers should not only find the technical solutions but also should translate the technical solutions to layman language to communicate the adopted solutions with the neighbouring property owners to ease their apprehensive mind. Advising residents to take property insurances as an alternative option is not an ethical request.

Dilapidation reports

In the developed countries, when a mega project is proposed, the developer appoints an independent engineer to carry out condition assessment of all neighbouring properties at their cost and produce property dilapidation reports, before starting of the construction works. 

The copies of such reports are given to the approval authority and to the neighbouring property owners so that any structural defects emerge in adjoining properties during and within a nominated period after the construction could be investigated comparing the conditions recorded in the dilapidation reports. If the cause of the structural defects are proven due to the new construction works, the contractors are liable for the necessary rectification works at their cost.

I believe that the preparation of dilapidation reports for all surrounding properties including the footpaths and roads near the construction site must be made compulsory for construction projects of any scale to be implemented near proximity of public areas. 

How often we could witness the roads are damaged by the heavy construction vehicles? Usually, the local authorities (in reality the taxpayers) are left to foot the bill for the repairs as there are no proper documentation to prove what and who caused the damage.

Information availability during approval process

The adjoining property owners have the right to know basic information such as what kind of structure is going to be constructed, how it is going to be done in stages, why certain construction method will be used, what would be the impact to the local traffic during and after construction, what would be the level of noise generation during the construction and also during the operation of the facility, what would be the environmental effects due to the proposed project. The neighbours need to know the above information before the approval is granted to the developer. 

This is why, in developed countries, there is a regulatory communication process for development approval. The approval authority will send a formal notification to all neighbours about the proposed project with basic information. The neighbours can contact a nominated officer for further information. 

The regulatory and approval authorities direct the developers to install information signs at the site with basic description of the proposed project with contact details of a nominated person for getting more specific information. This way general public know, in advance, about the proposed works for a particular site. Also the construction drawings of the project are available at the customer service counter of the approval authority for public to view on appointment. 

The aim is to have the neighbours all important project information before the approval is granted, hence they can lodge any objections to the approval authority for due consideration. In general, the complainants are invited for formal discussions when the deliberation of the approval process is begun.

I personally attended such information sessions, when a major project was implemented nearby my house. I have known examples that mega scale developers had to change the scale of constructions, build noise walls, and alter methods of constructions due to the public objections. It should be noted that anyone within the suburb of the proposed project site can lodge objections to a development if it has any impacts including social and economic to their way of life and there is no need them to be living adjoining property owners.

Site signage

In developed countries, during construction, a sign is to be displayed with safety instructions to the pedestrians and visitors to the site, site working hours, approval authority contact number and also the site project manager’s contact details.

If the site project manager does not respond favourably, the neighbours could complain to the approval authority on situations such as excessive construction noise, the dust generation, unsafe work methods and working outside nominated hours.

Safety and environmental regulations

Sri Lanka need stricter construction safety regulations and enforcement to protect neighbours, pedestrians, visitors, workers and properties. 

In Australia, construction safety regulations are extremely strict. If one hands over a land to a construction company for building a house, the land owner is not allowed to enter the house during construction period, without prior permission from the contractor. Even if the permission is granted, the owner needs to be accompanied by the site supervisor and only selected areas of the site can be accessed. This is a measure taken to manage people safety. The owner must wear a personal protective equipment (PPE) during the site visit. In Sri Lanka, we are lucky if even the site workers wear PPE. 

In Australia, any visitors to mega construction projects should follow stricter safety rules. In New South Wales, all regular independent site visitors need to have the White Card issued by the NSW Safe-Work. The White Card is issued to personnel who followed an accredited Work Health and Safety training program. 

In Australia, every developer must submit a traffic management plan to the regulatory authority and implement it upon approval. Qualified traffic wardens must be engaged at site to direct traffic at the entry and exit of the site directing vehicles and pedestrians. A developer should organise alternative safe passage for pedestrians without allowing them to jump on to a path of vehicle movement to pass the blocked footpath. Sri Lanka needs to adopt a similar approach.

When I recently visited Colombo, I could see many construction sites were being operated without proper environmental management controls. Excavated surfaces were not confined and very rarely I could see any erosion protection measures had been taken. During a heavy rain, soil could be washed away to the nearest drain, eventually causing blocked drains. Very often, construction material like sand are piled up at the entrance to the sites blocking the foot paths and the spilling of material to the road side drain is a usual occurrence. The local authorities have a role to play here rather than waiting for someone’s complaint.

A thought to ponder

Many of the aforementioned suggestions are easy to be implemented if the regulatory authorities have enough will. Development should make people’s social lives better instead of creating misery. Sri Lanka has enough competent professionals to support this cause. What is required is the political benediction, because, unless legally enforced, nothing could be implemented in Sri Lanka.

(Eng. Janaka Seneviratne is a Chartered Professional Engineer, a Fellow and an International Professional Engineer of both the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka and Australia. He holds two Masters Degrees in Local Government Engineering and in Engineering Management and at present, works for the Australian NSW Local Government Sector. His mission is to share his 31 years of local and overseas experience to inspire Sri Lankan professionals. He is contactable via senevir15@gmail.com.)

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