Too few inspectors to ensure disaster-ready buildings in PH

MANILA, Philippines – The biggest problem faced by the government in ensuring all buildings in the country will survive calamities is the lack of well-trained public officials to do assessments.

The challenge surfaced during a February 18 Senate hearing on strengthened implementation of the National Building Code of the Philippines in light of the natural disasters that ravaged the country last year. 

Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) brought even concrete buildings to the ground with its freak winds and storm surges. If the Departments of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Interior and Local Government (DILG) and Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) do not act fast, more buildings may meet the same fate when the next storm comes, endangering more human lives. (READ: DPWH did not know standard for shelters)

The local government official responsible for making sure buildings follow all building standards imposed by the government is the building official. The building official approves the building permits that allow construction. They are also in charge of conducting annual inspections of the buildings in their local government unit. 

According to Johnson Domingo of the DPWH National Building Code Development Office, a building official of a highly-urbanized city like Quezon City or Cebu City would typically have to process around 1,000 building permit applications per month. For a first class municipality, the figure would be around 80 applications a month.

All these applications are processed by a very small team of inspectors from the Office of the Building Official. In some towns, there are only two inspectors, including the building official. But in most LGUs, especially those less developed, the tasks of a building official are simply given to the LGU's engineer.

"It cannot be denied that there are times that these building officials may also have lapses due to the voluminous number of works and responsibilities that bombard them," explained Domingo.

Because of this, developers with substandard building plans are sometimes issued building permits, he said.

Too much work, too few people

Ernesto Ticao, President of the Philippine Association of Building Officials, admitted, "We lack people, we lack inspectors. That's why usually, we inspect only after the building or house is already constructed."

Ticao, himself the Building Official of Oton, a town in Iloilo, makes do with a two-man team to approve building permits, inspect buildings and catch violators. Approving building permits is no piece of cake, he emphasized. 

To make a comprehensive study of a business permit application, building officials have to study everything from the architectural design to the sanitation plans of the building.

They have to test the application against all the codes imposed by the government including:

Despite the amount of work required, being the building official isn't even Ticao's real job. His real designation is town engineer. 

The Building Code of the Philippines (Presidential Decree No 1096) named LGU engineers as acting building officials in the transition period after the code was created.

Collapsing the two roles in one official was supposed to be temporary. But 37 years after, many LGUs still have not created a separate office for a building official. 

Architect Marlon Cariño of the United Architects of the Philippines agreed on the need to separate the roles. 

"The engineers are literally the LGU's engineer. They oversee infrastructure projects by the government. The building official is in charge of enacting the Building Code."

Inspecting climate-resilient buildings

The few building inspectors in the country are also yet to receive updated training on new building standards that incorporate climate change adaptation.

"The increasing number of substandard buildings in the country has been highlighted by the typhoons, floods and earthquakes last year," said Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who chairs the Senate Committee on Local Government. He also chairs the Senate Committee on Urban Planning, Housing and Resettlements.

"To have just the city engineer inspect is not sufficient because the skill set to be required is much higher than it was before. Where do we get that skill set to be applied to this more complex requirements that climate change is imposing upon the assessment of building applications?"

While Domingo reported that the DPWH, with the help of a third party, provides training for all building officials and inspectors, he admitted the curriculum is not standardized and updated.

For example, inspectors are not yet trained to check if buildings can withstand 300 kilometer-per-hour winds (Yolanda winds reached 350 kph), are ready for intense droughts and aggravated flooding, which are effects of the shifting climate. (READ: 8 features of a typhoon-resistant house)

To this end, professional architects who attended the hearing added that the training of building officials and inspectors needs to be "multi-disciplinary."

"They should not only focus on one discipline like structural but on all disciplines – architectural, electrical, structural, mechanical – when they inspect the buildings," said architect Lora Rivera of UAP.

UAP offered to provide the training as a third party. Rivera said the organization has 134 chapters nationwide that can be tapped to assist regional DPWH offices in conducting the training.

The DENR also reported that detailed (1:10,000 scale) geohazard maps will be made available to all cities and municipalities by the end of 2014. These maps show all the geohazards like flooding, landslides, earthquakes and storm surges each city or town is most vulnerable to. (READ: Leyte reconstruction: MGB maps 'no build zones')

The information is meant to help architects, engineers, urban planners and government officials decide where it is safe to build structures. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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