An architect and former government consultant told the Sofia inquiry on Wednesday that work on much-needed new codes for the building industry slowed down in the run-up to the last general election as ministers and their officials 'disappeared' and valuable work done in the preceding months was shelved immediately after.

Martin DeBono testified at his own request before the inquiry, set up in the wake of the construction site death of Jean Paul Sofia last December. The inquiry is looking into whether there were administrative failures which could have contributed to the incident. 

DeBono insisted that the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), as the name itself implied, came into existence precisely to take oversight of all buildings, confirming the position taken by his former work colleague Michael Ferry who testified last Monday.

Ferry contradicted previous testimonies which had stated that the BCA had no oversight of free-standing buildings like the furniture factory that was being constructed at the Corradino industrial estate and which came down “like a pack of cards,” killing Sofia who was buried under the rubble.

Ferry had cited subsidiary legislation to explain why the BCA was responsible also for such free standing structures, sparking an immediate reaction by the authority who issued a press statement rebutting that position.

DeBono backed Ferry's view, pointing out that Ferry did not only “know the law” but “had written the law”.

DeBono, a former technical advisor at the Building Industry Consultative Council (BICC) had witnessed the inception of BICC, working hand in hand with former Labour minister and chairman of BICC, Charles Buhagiar.

New building codes were 'a pressing need'

As buildings evolved and construction was on the rise, the need for building codes became a pressing need, he explained.

“Without those codes, the BCA serves for nothing.”

Architect Martin DeBono said he was ordered to stop working on the new building trade codes.Architect Martin DeBono said he was ordered to stop working on the new building trade codes.

Those codes had nothing to do with the Euro codes but complemented them, explained Debono, listing seven in all.

They had worked hard on drafted two of those codes, the first dealing with demolition, excavation and structure and the other related to fire and safety.

That was some four years ago, when his department was constantly being chased to wrap up work on those codes.

The finest professionals in the sector, including academics from the University, were roped in to write those codes which would have proved valuable to architects.

Those codes would have defined exactly how construction works were to be carried out, rather than leave it to the general legal definition of works having to be carried out according to “craftsmanship and trade” 

“Saying that he did the works according to the building code would have served as an architect’s best defence even if an issue were to end up in court.”

Those first two codes were ready in 2020 and were presented to “everyone, but mainly the ministries.”

They were then to be taken to the BCA board before being put to stakeholders and published for public consultation, explained DeBono.

But as the general election approached, the ministers and their officials “disappeared.”

“We thought that the codes would be introduced after the election. But nothing of the sort happened.”

Once Minister Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi took over, all our work was “so to say, undermined,” DeBono said. 

Ferry was transferred to Belt is-Sebh and eventually, the 25 or so staff complement was whittled down to two.

Saying that he did the works according to the building code would have served as an architect’s best defence even if an issue was to end up in court.- Architect Martin DeBono

“At first we thought that it was a cost-cutting exercise…..But the BICC was totally dismantled.”

DeBono said he himself was transferred to BCA, purportedly to act as technical advisor to the minister but he was “effectively isolated.”

He was tasked to write another piece of legislation, namely the Party Wall Act.

He wrote an email to the minister, urging him not to “cut costs” as far as the BCA and its work was concerned.

“The BCA is not like the Planning Authority where you might have a dubious permit. At BCA unless we do things well, people will die.”

But Debono said, “they didn’t want to play ball. The building codes were shelved.”

He was ordered to “stop” working on those codes.

“Did that order come from the ministry?” Asked Sofia family lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia.

“That was the main intent,” he replied.

When pressed further, he explained that BCA CEO Jesmond Muscat had told him, “contractors already have enough to contend with. Don’t burden them further.”

But those codes, along with the accompanying explanatory notes, would have been a “great asset” to architects and would also have served to classify buildings, distinguishing between, for instance, a private residence and a hospital.

Contractors already have enough to contend with. Don’t burden them further

“A person who builds a rooftop room cannot have the same licence as someone who builds a skyscraper.”

Before granting a licence, it was essential to identify the responsibilities of different stakeholders.

“You cannot put the cart before the horse,” remarked board chairman and Judge Emeritus Joseph Zammit McKeon.

BICC had issued some 4,000 skill cards and some 10,000 safety cards, DeBono said, 

As from 2024, all persons on a construction site were supposed to have a safety card, thus ensuring that even an estate agent viewing a building in shell-form with prospective purchasers would at least have some awareness of the potential dangers.

“But all was shelved.”

As for workers, “today people on sites are jack of all trades.”

And giving them a licence perhaps made things even worse because when someone tried to challenge their performance, they would say that they were duly licenced by the BCA.

“Better no licence….It’s a much worse situation,” DeBono said.

Lawyers Therese Comodini Cachia , Matthew Cutajar and Eve Borg Costanzi are representing the victim's family. State Advocate Chris Soler and lawyer Anthony Borg are representing the State.

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