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What went wrong in Kandy?

25 September 2020 12:03 am - 20     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Who will stop building impending disasters?


  • Professionals who have failed to do their job properly are to be blamed
  • Sri Lanka has the worst possible building regulatory and compliance mechanisms  
  • The general public often have limited knowledge about the hidden structural defects 
  • There are numerous other unstable buildings and places in the city
  • People are focused on external appearance rather the structural stability  
  • authorities are trying to adapt an international building code for Sri Lanka 


Tragedy struck when a five-storey building caved in and collapsed, killing a young family of three in Kandy last week.   The construction in the steep slopes of Sanghamitta Mawatha, Buwelikada collapsed during the early hours of Sunday. 

According to the police, residents had managed to evacuate the collapsing building. The debris which fell upon a hotel killed three. Following a dramatic search and operation mission led by the military, a public debate ensued; who is responsible for this tragedy?  
Unfortunately, the general public often have limited knowledge about the hidden structural defects, usage limitations and regulatory compliance requirements that should be fulfilled during the construction phase and also during the lifespan of the building. This knowledge is important to ensure consumer health and safety, to obtain a fair return on investment and to facilitate building functionality, sustainability and comfort.  
The Daily Mirror met with National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) District Officer Samantha Bogahapitiya who is among a number of professionals of government authorities investigating this incident. We asked him what he believed was the cause of this collapse.  

“According to available data, this area is a valley, where two slopes meet. The centre or the place where this building was constructed had a considerable slope on the side. It was also observed that the location was also a catchment area where water flows. It was upon this kind of land that this building was constructed,” he said. Bogahapitiya said that at present the NBRO officers only possessed the initial information available in the aftermath of the collapse. He said that coupled with the experience and expertise of the officers, they were certain the environmental conditions of this site was unfavourable for a building of such a nature.  

“Valleys such as these are known to have weak soil, as they have weakened and withered. The digestion of soil is rapid and the outer layers are rather weak. Given such circumstances how can a five-storey building last long? I’m not sure how it lasted this long as the environment, water flow and other activities can all affect such a structure,” he explained.  
Asked as to how the approvals for this particular building were granted if the circumstances were such, Bogahapitiya said that the NBRO’s authority in this regard has been limited. A circular was issued in 2011 after a similar building collapse in Primrose, Kandy. Although there were no fatalities reported in this incident, several landslides reported in the central hills caused several deaths at the time. According to the circular it is mandatory to seek the approval of the NBRO prior to any construction.   
Bogahapitiya believes that there are numerous other unstable buildings and places in the city. The officials have also received a number of complaints stating that several places across Kandy are vulnerable and prone to similar hazards.   

“Many Constructions in Kandy are built on slopes and hilly areas. These buildings may be built either with or without the necessary permits. However their stability, especially the structural stability are currently being investigated.”  
“It is imperative that constructions are monitored because this is not the first time a building has collapsed this way. It is a social need at this point. Nevertheless it must be said that it is no easy task. These activities require resources and funds. There are many areas to be considered.  
But examining and monitoring process must be initiated promptly with whatever resources available,” he said adding that measures are underway to carry out such investigations. 


Over 50 complaints this week

“We receive many complaints from time to time. For instance a person who is concerned of a certain construction in their area may come forward with their grievances. Cracks and warps in columns or beams may be observed, this is very common. But the number of complaints we have received lately has risen due to this incident,” Bogahapitiya said.  
“We now hope to carry out initial investigations into these complaints and deliberate on further action. With the present situation we have received over 50 complaints this week. We expect this number to rise in future, as people are more aware and alert of this issue now. Regardless of the number however, we use these complaints to consider on the locations that we would investigate and research in future,” he stated.  

Asked about the complex nature of the approval process, Bogahapitiya said that there are two sides to this issue. “People have expressed their own concern as well as on other people’s properties. When a complaint is made we examine initially if the approvals are in place. We then examine if the constructions are according to the approved plan.”  
“When an officer approaches us with construction plans to be approved, we attempt to deliver the permits adhering to the rules and regulations as fast as we can. While the party seeking these approvals are keen on getting their approvals as soon as possible, it is also their responsibility to ensure that they help us.”  
Approvals too also diverse, he explained further. “In some cases an approval only means that a certain authority has no objection towards a particular development. The NBRO’s approvals however are different as it involves scientific research. For instance, geology, hydrology as well as land use are all examined during one of the initial inspections undertaken by the NBRO. If these matters are also in order we then proceed to grant approval. There is no deliberate delay in granting these approvals on our part.”  

Meanwhile he said that in some cases a final decision cannot be reached with the initial data available. “It’s similar to getting treatment from a physician who might prescribe various tests such as x-rays and scans to determine the root cause of illness. It is the responsibility of the sick person to help the physician in this case. Similarly, it is also the responsibility of whoever is undertaking construction to ensure that they help us with all the required details. Sometimes despite the availability of all this data, the results may be inconclusive and require further tests for which we may not have funds or resources.”  
Bogahapitiya stressed that construction therefore is a responsibility of both the authorities and the builders. “People are focused on the external appearance of the construction rather the structural stability of the buildings. In the end whatever people construct is according to their whims and not according to our recommendations,” he opined.  
“We are currently gathering information on buildings which have to be examined and monitored. I believe more than 90 per cent of these constructions have deviated from the original approved plan. The reality is that the number of constructions which have adhered to the regulations are minimal. Therefore it is not the officials who are to be blamed but those who undertake these constructions,” he stressed.   

The Planning and Building regulations contain several building specifications with regard to minimum extent of land, maximum number of floors, minimum road width, minimum width of plots and plot coverage ratio, etc. Issuance of preliminary clearance, approval of plans for constructions are done by the UDA while the constructions below the said specifications are handled by the Municipality.   
 In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Janaka Seneviratne, a Chartered Professional Engineer and an International Professional Engineer of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka and Australia said unfortunately Sri Lankans wake up only after an incident.  
 “Whenever people hear about a building collapse, they start talking about it. But, what they have been doing was just reacting to such incidents, not responding. The government should understand that the real problem lies somewhere else.”  

What is the Job of Professionals?

 “When a building plan is being done, first the architect comes for the architectural design. Then, the engineers should take over the task. Geo-technical engineers should investigate the land the soil condition. That is when they recommend about what kind of a foundation is required for the construction project. The next job is for the structural engineers to focus on the foundation and other structural elements of the building. Then, the services engineers play their role in service engineering including air conditioning, ventilation system, fire services, sewerage system, water supply system and etc. Depending on the location of the land, environmental impact should also be assessed. The noise that could be generated from the construction project should also be assessed.   

 Meanwhile, the role played by traffic engineers should not be forgotten as they investigate what kind of a new traffic will be generated due to the new building and how it will impact the locality. As I said above, there are so many aspects that should be checked before and even after constructing a building. Are we following the above steps? I don’t think we are. If we were, unfortunate collapses like the Kandy incident would not have happened.  
 The job of the professionals does not end with the completion of a building. There are very important matters that need to be checked after the completion of the construction. Constant checkups and reviews such as condition assessments at least in every five years are mandatory in maintaining buildings. That is how we can find out about which areas of the building need repair and renovations in order to make them safe and lasting.”  

Who is to blame?

Seneviratne was certain about who to blame for building collapses.  
 “I don’t blame politicians. I don’t even want to blame the building owners and the people who are doing such wrongful constructions. I blame the professionals in Sri Lanka who have failed to do their job properly. If the professionals did their job right, then we would be able to point fingers at those who have violated the regulations.”  
Several state authorities and professional bodies have now come together to come up with a programme to review existing constructions in the Kandy city. These include the Kandy Municipal Council, Urban Development Authority (UDA), the Central Province Engineering Department as well as the Peradeniya University. UDA Central Province Director S. N. Nissanka said that the project would be first implemented within the Kandy city limits, with the expectation of extending it to the fragile areas of the central province.   
However Nissanka too agrees that the responsibility lies with professionals who undertake or endorse construction projects.   

“I believe that the responsibility of a construction falls on three parties. Firstly, as officials, we have a responsibility to review if the project is carried out under the guidance and approval of professionals. It is then that we grant approval. Secondly the responsibility falls on professionals, to ensure that the construction is carried out as according to the plan, prior to the issuance of certifications of compliance,” he said.  
“The proprietor is then responsible —regardless of who inhabits the building— to ensure that the construction is carried out through qualified professionals. It is not just a building but an investment for the country. Therefore, the quality of the construction must be ensured by the applicant and the builder. A building if engineered properly, cannot just collapse. In this case, there is no building anymore for us to investigate whether it was built according to standards,” Nissanka stated.  

The Lack of a National Building Code

 The Chartered Professional Engineer Janaka Seneviratne believes that Sri Lanka has the worst possible regulatory and compliance mechanisms.   
 “Sri Lanka does not have a consolidated buildings act and building regulations. We don’t have a national building code. We also don’t have a sound development administrative system, building application and approval system. We don’t maintain records of existing buildings properly. We don’t have a building conditions 
auditing system.   

 I am one of the professionals who advocated for having a national building code for Sri Lanka. But, the interest of those who have authority to do it is very poor. Their response and the support were in a sorry state. As far as I am concerned, Sri Lankan authorities are trying to adapt an international building code for Sri Lanka and I don’t approve of it. The local construction practices and the local environmental conditions are completely different. A national code for Sri Lanka has to be our own, which should be designed and prepared by locals. Introducing an international building code is not going to work for Sri Lanka. Another important point is the national building code has to be made a legal document. Otherwise, those who violate the code would not be legally obligated to be answerable and accountable. If Sri Lanka does not take these important actions without further delay, we will lose more innocent lives in future.”  


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  Comments - 20

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  • King Friday, 25 September 2020 05:55 AM

    What happened is plane and simple, people took bribes! It happens everyday but is ignored by the higher authorities. Areas like Mahakandha in Peradeniya and the mountain range opposite are a classic example. So many buildings have been constructed on perilous slopes. HOW were they approved?

    Winston O'Boogie Saturday, 26 September 2020 07:06 PM

    Very true. I know from fist going over there in'89 and the Immigration officer was always looking for a bribe[under the table of course] so I could stay longer. I've been to Kandy and know the area. How sad.

    Robert Mathew Friday, 25 September 2020 11:21 AM

    How did the owner obtain the permission in an area, where two slopes meet which is also a catchment area where water flows? How could the owner leave without alerting those in the hotel. Was he aware of the imminent danger? Was the area of the collapsed building belong to the owner, legally? These are questions that need answers?

    Aney Manda Friday, 25 September 2020 11:56 AM

    Everyone’s very quick to point fingers at the owner of the building. What about the KMC? Isn’t there some mechanism to check if these are built according to standard, after the building is built. Surely it’s all corruption. It’s Kandy after all. Where does one find flat land to build so easily!!!

    Leslie Gunatilleka Friday, 25 September 2020 02:32 PM

    This is the sad truth of bad management by the Governing Bodies. Unfortunately most staff in these setups are corrupt and plans are approved for money. In Sri Lanka, we have many good Engineers, but they are not being utilised ; instead the corrupted officials are ruling the day.

    Another Eng Friday, 25 September 2020 08:02 PM

    UDA Central Province Director saying they cannot investigate whether the building was built according to standards because the building is not there anymore is the most absurd thing anyone competent or knowledgeable can say. Clearly proves the points the Chartered Engineer is saying. There is a field called Forensic Engineering. After a failure, they collect all the available data including photos, measurements, samples of materials for testing, and drawings to perform analyses including reverse engineering i.e. working backwards to see if it was unsafe design or poor construction. Was any such data collected?

    Another Eng Friday, 25 September 2020 08:31 PM

    Bring back Wimal Weerawansa as the Minister of Construction.

    Dinesh -USA Saturday, 26 September 2020 12:17 AM

    After reading this article I feel sorry for residents who live-in high-rise buildings in Colombo. If one of these buildings catch fire or collapse, those families live in upper flows will not be able to rescue. In such a incident authorizes will blame each other ,victims will not get anything. I was told there is no emergency rescue plane for most of these high-rise buildings.

    Kumar Friday, 02 October 2020 12:21 AM

    In the US there is a building code and fire suppression is a part of it. Authorities enforce it strictly. Fire activated sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire resistant doors and automatically closing shutters are a part of it. Most important part of this is the escape plan and fire escape drills. There is no ladder that can reach the top of the building

    Indi Saturday, 26 September 2020 03:42 AM

    Kudos to the writers for giving the facts

    sss Saturday, 26 September 2020 05:43 AM

    The offenders even did not think of telling neighbors before they ran away to save their sorry lives. Typical of selfishness and lack of social consciousness in SL society

    sacre blieu Saturday, 26 September 2020 09:30 AM

    Political patronage and absolute corruption of all sorts. This is common in all municipal and local government institutions all over the country. They target the law abiding citizen and drag them along over multiple unending inquiries on fictitious charges and humiliation, blowing up even the simplest of solvable issues. Look at the violation of street lines allowing buildings to encroach virtually on to the road leaving no room for future expansion. Some decisions and permissions,have ended up provoking hostile engagements among neighbors , while the complaints and protests in the files , for attention, have piled up, due intentional delays and neglect. WHY? Obvious.

    Joseph de Silva Saturday, 26 September 2020 10:56 AM

    I totally agree with Eng. Tanaka Seneviratne. Govt.and professional institutions must get together to regulate the building industry. There are cowboys a ting as professional engineers a nd definitely builders. Then there are highly corrupt council officers a nd politicians.

    Jayanthi Ranathunga Saturday, 26 September 2020 01:56 PM

    Land ownership and suitability to build five story building and its engineering process are complicated matters. Anyhow the owner evacuated himself and family with pets. It may take a little period . They came to know the havoc after informing a neighbour. Some neighbours are informed the danger. Anyhow evacuation and collapse happened between 2 am And 5.25 a. m. The son of the owner had informed to police. Owner left his home and dwelt in a neighbour s house. These facts are gathered according to their own words. Central province Governor expressed that there are systems to approve plans under package system. Local Councils are lethargic and corrupt from top to toe. But, merely giving a telephone call to police, can anyone lives according to his conscious. Up to 5.15 were there none with a fewer knowledge to inform to Disaster Management Authority?. KANDY is a city while person is committing suicide, the saver dies.

    V Surendran Saturday, 26 September 2020 09:32 PM

    Yes Kandy has become a disaster-prone area where we feel much-unauthorized construction like the one collapsed are in existence where the authorities need to check more on to like in the areas Anniwaata, Rajapihila Mawatha, Lewella, Buwelikada to name a few area.

    Gamarala Saturday, 26 September 2020 11:09 PM

    Unstable ground, there should have been concrete piles driven deep into the side of the hill before construction of such a highrise building. The fault lies in the building which was not properly anchored.

    E Fernando Sunday, 27 September 2020 05:51 PM

    Through personal experience I say the authorities have taken bribes and approved plans. This definitely isn't the only one. Blame all the authorities in kandy because the staff have been the same for years and different authorities work together to get illegal work passed and share the bribes.

    Sambo Monday, 28 September 2020 08:16 AM

    The main reason Sri Lanka is facing because of half education. No respect for law and order. No proper regulations.

    E Fernando Monday, 28 September 2020 09:00 AM

    All district officers must be connected online. If something happens , all documentation should be available for any district officers to check. This will make things more transparent and easier for the public to get their work done

    Thivanka Monday, 05 October 2020 03:12 PM

    Is someone taken into custody?

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