Wracked by construction worries

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Recent news accounts show that Vietnam has experienced a rash of construction failures.

The failure of projects rushed to completion in time for the Hanoi Millennium Celebration comes readily to mind. There have been reports of similar problems with the construction of sports venues for the 2003 SEA Games just nine years ago, which are starting to deteriorate already. We have heard that the new and sparsely used Hanoi Museum is developing cracks that lead to questions of safety as well as appearance and the reputation of the city.

As a long time resident of Nha Trang, I have mentioned the sad deterioration of the four-lane parkway from Nha Trang to the Cam Ranh Airport which was rushed for the Miss Universe Pageant in 2008. When it was completed it rivaled in beauty the famous US Route 1 which parallels the Pacific Coast of California and is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the country.

Now the Nha Trang/Cam Ranh road is under constant repair due to poor quality construction.

The very serious question that all these failures raise is this: Given the proliferation of high rise hotels and apartment and condominium buildings all over the country, how safe are these buildings?

Recently a friend from Italy and the US who has been involved with construction in various parts of the world visited me. He has been considering buying a condominium in Nha Trang as a second home, and has been examining the large number of properties currently coming to the market here. He spoke disparagingly of one very prestigious new building with beautiful units. To his trained eye, the construction was of very poor quality and he would not buy anything there.

On a smaller, personal level, when my wife and I were married, we had a very unusual and according to our friends, a very beautiful house built. Every room had multiple outlets for telephone and cable TV. Within six months, none of them functioned. We called the electrician back and he decided that rats had gotten into the walls and chewed the insulation in key places, so our formerly neat house is now strung with wires.

According to our architect, his plans had called for conduit to run all the service wires in an accessible fashion but the builder had ignored this without consulting anyone. The builder and his electrician would not stand behind their work. He evidently saved some money for his own pocket by simply laying all the wires in the cement with no protection. One little incident, but it represents an attitude that is far too common among many workers. "Don't worry about building repeat business, just do it quick and cheap and then don't be available when someone has a problem!"

Such problems might not be unique to Vietnam, with serious accidents seen in China and Japan, for instance. In the US, where the infrastructure is generally built to the highest standards, we are hearing of serious collapses and deterioration due to a lack of funds available for routine maintenance. This is going to cost billions to remedy and there will probably be more lives lost when another bridge collapses.

However, the question remains: What protection does the Vietnamese government provide for the public in terms of ensuring safety in projects that use public money? Are these projects inspected regularly by competent inspectors, and not the unskilled son or nephew of some government official?

Most of bridge projects involve large amounts of concrete. No building material is easier to cheat on than concrete. A little less concrete, a little more sand, who will be the wiser?! Then the road breaks up or the tunnel falls in. Or the whole building collapses.

Most of the very large buildings being built in Vietnam are all or mostly made of concrete. It can be a wonderful material. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, once the tallest in the world, are made of reinforced concrete.

I see the same company names on the big projects here in Nha Trang, so I assume they have a reputation for quality although one of them built the building my friend has judged inferior. Do they inspect the batches of cement for themselves to be sure the supplier is meeting specifications rather than entrust the task to others?

With the construction of the Bitexco Financial Tower with its iconic helipad, the 124th tallest building in the world, Vietnam has entered the realm of world class buildings. The tower, however, is built of steel and glass. The building ranks at number 5 in the world's most iconic skyscrapers elected by CNNGo. In December, 2011, Leslie E. Robertson Associates received an Excellence in Structural Engineering Award for this project from NCSEA.

This is good to hear, but it does not assuage concerns about the safety and durability of all concrete constructions in the country. How can people know what regulations are in place, if there are independent inspectors that can check the work of construction companies to ensure quality of the concrete mix and amount of reinforcing steel (rebar) used in the piers and floors? It is not clear if the industry regulates itself to maintain a reputation for quality.

There have been enough accidents of late to warrant urgent, conscientious response from government agencies and the construction industry itself.

When I moved to Nha Trang nine years ago, there was a Vietnam War memorial in the center of the city. After a couple of years, it disappeared and construction started on an elaborate and very strange looking concrete tower in its place. It looked similar to the unique designs of the world famous architect, Frank Gehry.

Construction continued for a year or so and then abruptly stopped. The tower with its odd appendages stood within its fence for many years while the story came out that the money allocated for its construction had run out prematurely! As it stood idle, it deteriorated. Concrete broke away from the rebar and rust appeared everywhere on the part of the tower that had been finished. I wonder how long it would have lasted if it had been completed?

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