arnab gupta

‘It looked fine from the outside.’

July 08, 2013

An old building in Secunderabad collapsed today. The building was used as a hotel, which means that quite a lot of people were inside when it happened. Although some of those people have been rescued, 11 people have already been declared dead, and many more are still trapped inside.

Some points from the report–

  • The hotel was planning to build an oven on the first floor (this is India, which means they’re talking about the ‘second floor’ in American parlance). The building may have collapsed under the weight of bricks being transported for this; the building lacked concrete pillars to support the weight.
  • The building had structural weaknesses, but the hotel was not issued safety notices (recently, along with many other buildings) because “the building looked fine from outside”.
  • “In future, all buildings over 60 years old will be given orders for renovation,” says the city planning commissioner.

This is appalling, on a number of counts.

  • Did the hotel seek permission from the city planning commissioner’s office before undertaking their oven-building project? If not, this is gross negligence on the part of the hotel authorities. They are presumably not experts in structural engineering, and should not be in a position to judge the capabilities of a structure.
  • ‘Looked fine from the outside’ is not a structural health monitoring technique. However much the city planning commission tries to blame anyone else, they were grossly negligent too. Laziness in health monitoring of public structures causes lives, and they should know and acknowledge that.

    Health monitoring norms and procedures are in place for a reason, and even the most exhaustive and advanced health monitoring techniques don’t work if ‘looked fine from the outside’ is treated as an adequate criterion.

  • How about, instead of treating every building older than 60 years as needing renovation, the city planning commission does its job of inspecting buildings thoroughly? The problem isn’t that they can’t identify structural flaws—they’ve recently issued notices to 57 other buildings recently. It’s just that this building fell through the cracks, because ‘it looked fine from the outside’.

    The problem with the diktat about 60 year old buildings is that it increases the overall cost of maintaining buildings, and decreases the efficiency of health checks. Even well designed buildings, which are for all intents in great shape, will be forced to undergo renovations, or at least exhaustive checks, when they clearly don’t need them. On the one hand this increases the overall cost of inspection and renovation, because you’re spending resources where they’re not needed. On the other it increases the risk of ‘it looks good from the outside’ assessments. This is because the more the number of buildings tested that turn out to be perfectly healthy, the more the officers are prone to become lax and take shortcuts in making assessments.

    Instead, why not improve the work ethic of the inspection officials? Why not make them actually follow the health monitoring guidelines, and make sure that buildings that actually need detailed renovations are the only ones that get notices?

Can you tell that the line about ‘it looked fine from the outside’ has irked me? It has. Structural health monitoring is extremely important for public safety, and such negligence should have no place here. Compare this with a recent tragic story of a building inspector in Philadelphia, USA, who apparently committed suicide because a building collapsed under his watcheven though he had nothing to do with it:

A city building inspector who examined a demolition project just weeks before a building collapsed at the site and killed six people has been found dead in an apparent suicide […]

“This man did nothing wrong,” Mr. Gillison [deputy mayor for public safety and chief of staff] added. “The department did what it was supposed to do under the code at the time.” Officials have said they will make any necessary changes to the city’s building code to prevent such incidents in the future.

Some accidents, like the one in Philadelphia, are unavoidable, and it is indeed tragic when the building inspectors blame themselves. The whole point of health and safety standards, and inspection codes and permissions, is to avoid accidents where possible, and the whole system stands on inspectors and officials with acute eyes and sharp skills.

The collapse in Secunderabad is sad and tragic, but the most important question is and should be—was it avoidable? Apparently it was. Does Secunderabad need a change in safety standards? Only the planning commissioner’s office can determine that—although they’d do well to remove ‘it looked fine from the outside’ from their manuals.