December 18, 2021

Buildings collapse when there’s disconnection between experts — Kalu, property developer

Buildings collapse


By Prisca Sam-Duru

Chudi Onyemeri Kalu is a Property Developer, Real Estate investor and Rental Income coach who trains people on how to run real estate investment as well as take opportunities within the real estate market.

In this interview, Kalu who is also President of Africa’s Property Investment Group, reveals factors responsible for building collapse, preventive measures and the fate of the real estate business in Nigeria. Excerpt.

What would you attribute as the probable cause of the 21-storey building that collapsed in Ikoyi recently?

I think accidents do happen. We may not be too clear until we have the final report from that particular incident because there’s a panel that has been set up. But it happens when there is a disconnection between proper inspection, supervision, and engagement. I don’t know the details of the 21-storey building that collapsed but I know that it is not every place that you build certain kind of structures. Soil texture differs from one place to another.

You have a situation whereby you can go 21 meters into the ground on a particular soil, maybe for a 7-storey building; you can even go 40 meters into the ground in another place. Why soil textures differ from each other is because the stability where you are going to enjoy the solid platform might be different from another one.

When there is a vacuum, that is, if you build your house to the point that you do not get to the solid ground, the missing gap will either cause your house to sink or tilt.

That’s why I often say to anybody into construction that people may not have the intention of playing pranks on the system because it does not help any person; it’s scary for the developers. But here’s what we call concrete testing; laboratory tests of whatever materials you are bringing into the soil. For instance, iron and, sand to check if it has chlorine inside. You also test the water to be used to mix the cement.

Are all those tests done here in Nigeria?

Yes, they do all the testing. A whole lot of developers do that and they have their laboratories in Lagos; there’s one in Yaba and I think there’s another in Ikeja. They run tests not because the government wants to clamp down on you but it’s for your own sanity. You can also have that as evidence and as a way to measure what materials are coming in. Nigeria has a vast mixture of importation coming from some weird places and people just want to buy the cheapest materials. The problem with the cheapest material is that it can destroy your lifetime investment and lifetime work. I always encourage people to conduct a series of tests on the materials because something can be sparkling, yet of lesser quality.

Shouldn’t the expert know which material could cause a disaster in future?

They should know, but in the midst of high-level quantity, you may miss it out. That’s why some buildings are collapsing.

From your experience, do you think developers adhere strictly to government building regulations?

I don’t know about all developers but I can speak for myself and some of the developers that I know. They follow the right procedure in terms of testing. A lot of people even do that on their own and some of them keep those items- the results for future reference. Take the quality of cement for instance. All brands of cement are not the same.

But it appears we have only two brands of cement in Nigeria?

There are even more than two brands in Nigeria but I wouldn’t want to mention names. So, there is certain cement that you can use for certain soils in certain areas. There is a particular kind of cement that is better, not that you can’t use all of them for certain things but there’s a particular cement that you can use for what we call casting; like casting your columns. There’s another cement that is better in making blocks. So, this brand may be good for this one while another brand, for another one. It’s for the developer to know which of them to use per time and that’s why testing comes to play.

 If we don’t do all of that, we might be missing something. Also, I think that part of disconnection where the government is also supposed to play a role; the role of regulators, there happens to be a lot of disconnections and communication gaps.

Everybody needs to be more responsible; the developers, regulators, government that is overseeing some of the operations of developers needs to start playing more concrete roles in addressing some of these issues.

What’s the combination of professionalism involved in building projects especially ones beyond two floors?

Like the one I talked about the soil test part, they are called geotechnics. And what they do is test the soil to ensure its ability to hold the intended structure. So, you have an architect that has designed the building but, that does not mean that the building the architect-designed can sit on that particular soil. If it can’t sit on that particular soil, it’s either you go back and change the architectural design, or change the number of floors or whatever you need to change, based on the tests conducted by the geotechnics.

The geotechnics is called the forerunner; after you’ve gotten the site, they determine whether it is possible or not. They can also tell you the depth at which you should go in terms of your foundation, based on the research they’ve conducted on that soil. There are houses you see in certain areas; the windows are close to the roof because the house is sinking. This is probably because the foundation didn’t touch the last end where you meet the solid ground.

After the geotechnics, you have the structural engineers who form the column, the pillar, etc. What they do is to bring out the structural members; it’s not about blockwork, it’s now about the skeletal work of the building. So, if people miss this part and then make an architect, do the work of geotechnics or structural engineers, that’s where you begin to have problems. Everyone has their own speciality that you need to engage.

Who brings all the professionals together?

In construction there is an order, you know it’s like a system or a process. At every stage, someone will complete his own task and hand it over to the other person. It’s operational and there’s an operational pattern that everybody is supposed to follow. The most important thing here is, for instance, I was a client, developer or investor, need to understand what the sequence is, otherwise, I’ll not be able to engage. The knowledge part is most important.

That is the part where I need to understand what the sequence is; who takes over from who? Once we all understand that, it’s easier to navigate and work effectively and prevent disasters. It also helps to identify and address a problem because there will always be problems that can also be preventive.

What is the fate of real estate projects in Nigeria against the backdrop of this disaster?

Of course, there’s an impact but not as much as many of us will assume it to be. Interestingly, there is a vast high-level demand in real estate, no doubt. And Nigeria and Africa have been projected to lead the next housing revolution in the world. The Asia continent is going to be one, Nigerian market will also be one because of high-level demand. Whatever we are building now cannot meet up housing. I think we are doing less than 150,000 houses on yearly basis, while what we need to meet the gap is about 8 million houses on yearly basis for the next ten years. That gap is too wide. That’s why people coming into the market need to form a synergy between the government- regulators because they’re meeting this particular need.

How can investors’ confidence be bolstered as many may be wary of putting their money in the real estate business?

The investors will become a bit more sceptical but I think that if we do the right thing and do it well, it will help escalate interest in real estate investment. While doing it well, being transparent in the way you run your construction activities will help. For example, when we did our own construction, we were going about 22 meters into the ground.

That is almost as though you are putting 7 and a half storey building into the ground, for a building that is just about 3 storey building. That is because you have the understanding that this particular terrain is different from the other terrains. What I will build here, maybe on the island, is different from what I’m going to build somewhere in Akowonjo.

Are you saying the disaster will make developers become more careful?

Not only the developers, everybody has to be more careful because it impacts the operational pattern, including the government which is even more under pressure than ever before. Everybody is concerned about what we are going to do to prevent such because definitely, somebody missed something. So how then do we ensure it doesn’t happen again.

It’s the responsibility of every stakeholder involved. One thing about these negative stuffs is that it does not just affect the owner of the building but the entire industry, because real estate development in Nigeria or anywhere in the world is based on trust and integrity; because you are dealing with human beings. And how we treat human beings matters a whole lot with our construction model.

Has your company experienced any adverse reaction from prospective investors since the disaster?

No! Not at all. And I wouldn’t want to sing my own praise, but we’ve not. That’s why I said earlier that transparency will help because people will see what your growth level is; you are not hiding or keeping anything away. Personally, I do a lot of activities while trying to make people see what we are doing. What I shared earlier was the depth at which we went on one of our buildings.

It’s not hidden; even our clients know. So, transparency helps curb a lot of the menace. And because you are transparent, somebody can call you to order or help provide a solution somewhere maybe it’s free advice that you may ordinarily be paying for. We do that as a company and I advise that other property developers try that too.

Even in the area of testing the quality of your materials, don’t keep it, don’t try to hide it because it does not fit, just let everybody know and deliberate on it. If it’s something you are not supposed to go ahead with, don’t.

You heard about the recent demolition in Festac extension, why does government wait for buildings to be completed and occupied before demolition?

That’s the part I don’t really understand. But I often say this, in the kind of society we live in, people make advancement faster than government. People bring community development faster than the government. It happened in the Ikotun area and it’s the same thing happening in Ibeju Lekki. It is not that government would not know what’s going on but people are always outpacing the government because of the high demand for housing.

 People just go in droves into certain areas, and I think that’s what happened in Festac too. It will now take a bold government to say that the houses are not supposed to be here. But by that time, somebody had been staying there for 20 or 40 years.  But if the government goes ahead of the people to set out parameters; the layout for areas designated for particular projects based on the master plan of that area, demolitions will not happen.

But people come out to say they paid, have certificates…?

Yes, they did and that’s the part where I said people outpace government development.

What challenges do you face in the real estate business?

The major challenge is, for instance, you’ve told people that you are going to deliver this house for a certain amount and all of a sudden, prices increase. What will you tell that client after you’ve had an agreement?

What happened last year especially during the outbreak of the pandemic was that some real estate companies shut sites because there was no way for them to meet up. Some who didn’t close went back to their clients and explained the situation of things. They pleaded that a bit of money be added and, some considerate clients did. It happened to us and some of our clients said no problem, we are good to go. But there were clients who said no, that’s not their concern, the pandemic affected everybody. Again, it’s imperative to be transparent. Let people know it’s to bring quality to the work, they will naturally want to work with

I’m also keen on property developers coming together; collaborating. Property developers are the ones who shape society. They shape lifestyle and even an economy. It’s important that those people who do such, come together; collaboration is key. Not as a union but as a platform that shares strategic ideas. Once we don’t see ourselves as competitors, it makes the environment healthier.    

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