An expert report into excavation and construction practices which was commissioned following the death of a housewife in the rubble of her own home was tabled in parliament on Wednesday. 

The report was made public 10 months after the death of Miriam Pace – which came just months after a series of other, near-fatal collapses – shocked the nation and prompted Prime Minister Robert Abela to vow thorough reform of practices within the sector. 

Led by retired judge Lawrence Quintano the team which drafted the report included geo-technical engineer Adrian Mifsud, architect Mario Cassar and lawyer Mark Simiana.

What did the report conclude? 

The report says contractors need to be regulated and registered depending on size, specialisation, capability, and experience. 

It calls for safeguards, including restricting the use of pneumatic hammer excavation equipment when it poses a threat to the structural integrity of a site. 

The authorities should define zones in which specific excavation machinery cannot be used, in order to protect third parties, the report says. 

Excavation works should observe a distance of more than 2’6” (760 mm) from the adjacent or surrounding boundary walls, increasing at an angle of 45 degrees (or at a width to depth ratio of 1:1) depending upon the excavated depth. This depends on the type of rock or soil being excavated. 

All excavation works should be restricted during certain hours of the day in built up areas and should be stopped if noise levels measured in neighbouring properties are “exceedingly high beyond the level of tolerance”.

The report calls for legislation to ensure enforcement and impose penalties which act as an effective deterrent, with criminalisation of certain breaches not ruled out.  

Architects should be prohibited from acting professionally in connection with projects they own, alone or jointly with others, or in which they have a financial and speculative interest. 

The architects’ chamber, Kamra tal-Periti, should be informed of ethical breaches by architects and be empowered to take decisions on disciplinary measures. 

On enforcement, the report says the government should initiate checks throughout all phases, both at pre-construction stage, and at excavation-construction stage of projects. 

The site technical officer (STO) should manage the enforcement process before and after the permit is issued, should send a condition survey to third parties for endorsement and become the main reference point for all parties.

A system of deterrents, including fines and the withdrawal of building permits, ought to be triggered by STOs, to discourage non-compliance. 

The report also suggests fine-tuning the warranting system for architects and immediate registration schemes for contractors, classified according to competence, and experience. 

There also needs to be a registration scheme for ground investigation companies and measures to mitigate dangerous practices during excavation. 

Authorities ought to allow for the feasibility of excavation and construction of additional floors be checked at an early stage of every project. 

Meanwhile, the report says that the government needs to invest heavily in enforcement to weed out abuse. 

Professionals, contractors and operators involved in the industry need to be registered and classified, the report says.  

“Certain practices” should be curtailed to put people’s minds at rest, without significant impact on the construction industry in general. It goes on to specify types of excavation that are acceptable while pointing out those which are hazardous. 

The experts warn that in recent years many had engaged in “a very dangerous activity” which is now so commonplace and that few dare to question it. 

That is a reference to the practice of cutting rock flush with party walls on site using a piece of excavation equipment known as trencher or a track-mounted chainsaw, prior to its bulk removal by other means. 

This, the report warns, can significantly weaken the rock mass of a site even before the actual bulk excavation has started. Stopping this practice, the report says, will go a long way towards protecting the interests of affected third parties and the general public.  

The experts also discussed the option of having the state introduce the concept of a building permit, as a distinct and autonomous concept from the development or planning permit.

It is suggested that it should be the onus of the developer and architects to prove that an excavation or an addition to an existing building can be carried out safely. 

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