Growing pains beset builders

Greater Bangkok got a frightening reminder of what poor building standards can mean when a seven-storey residential building under construction tilted, cracked and threatened to subside completely this week. Inspectors cited weak foundations providing insufficient support on land that had formerly been a water storage area. It is terrifying to contemplate the consequences of a collapse had the building been completed and fully occupied, especially as it was the second of 10 identical buildings to be used for high-capacity dormitories.

Nor was it the first instance of poorly designed buildings developing a dangerous tilt during construction. While this week's scare took place in Pathum Thani province, other problems have surfaced over the years during construction of a riverside hotel in Bangkok, an apartment block on Soi On Nut and a Sukhumvit Road shopping and office complex. These faults were corrected, but this fresh scandal once again raises the issue of quality control and the calibre of the civil engineers, government and municipal officials signing off on an enormous number of projects.

With major infrastructure works in progress and more about to begin, we must ask ourselves if we have sufficient labour resources, architects, electricians and skilled engineers to not just see the projects through, but to ensure that high-quality specifications are met and safety standards maintained. These expensive projects must be designed to last, not to fall apart after a few years. At least one shortfall is likely as migrant labourers will eventually return home to take advantage of large-scale modernisation plans.

The labour situation is aggravated by the continued expansion of the property sector as it enjoys a 10% annual increase in housing demand. Each year, an estimated 80,000 residential units are launched in Bangkok and neighbouring provinces alone. As a result, some areas of the capital are becoming massively overdeveloped and lacking in basic infrastructure. But despite the uncertain labour situation, at least we can count on the dedication and professionalism of our technical managers. When dealing with high-end residential projects in the private sector, that level of expertise is never in doubt. But there is notably less enthusiasm when it comes to the low-cost, space-challenged condo units, even though mid-level housing is where the future lies. And there has been a definite waning of interest in public housing projects, possibly because of their sullied reputation. A case in point is the late and unlamented Baan Ua-Arthorn housing project.

Launched amid great fanfare in 2003, these housing developments gained notoriety as showpieces of corruption. Dehumanising and joyless, they became famous for ill-fitting doors; roofs prone to blow away in strong gusts of wind; holes and cracks in foundations, walls and ceilings; dangerously placed electrical outlets; thin walls; poor infrastructure and all-round substandard construction. The scheme was terminally flawed; a project that was supposed to cater to the housing needs of the urban poor but became instead a money pit which enriched contractors and politicians alike. No one wants to live through that again.

Although there is nothing unusual about the continuing rush to build soaring condos or new office blocks in a city as busy and sprawling as Bangkok, some observers are cautioning for restraint. Those with vivid memories of the suddenness with which the building boom went bust in 1997 are nervously watching runaway government spending and worrying about its potential to nurture a new bubble.