Last week, Prime Minister Robert Abela tabled a report in parliament that took a close look at the construction industry and found what it described as “deep-rooted problems” across the board.
The government had commissioned the report after a house adjacent to a construction site collapsed early last March, causing the death of Miriam Pace.
Abela did not initially intend to publish the report, saying the recommendations were gradually being implemented. But he reversed his decision after the Pace family said they were “baffled and disappointed” that it would not see the light of day.
The report was drawn up by retired judge Lawrence Quintano, geo-technical engineer Adrian Mifsud, architect Mario Cassar and lawyer Mark Simiana.
Where do the dangers lie?
The authors set out to find weaknesses and propose reform of the construction industry to ensure public safety. One of their chief concerns is excavation.
They identify as dangerous the common practice of excavating flush to party walls, exposing the vertical rock face underneath the foundations of existing buildings.
Irrespective of the material beneath, the existing buildings are weakened as the material previously supporting it has been removed, the report says.
Another worrying practice it identifies is the use of a specific machine, the trencher, to cut the rock flush at the party wall. The machine does not make it possible to determine whether it is causing the rock to fissure. This means there could be structural damage before excavation has even begun.
While it has generally been assumed that Maltese rock is not prone to fissures, this is not always the case. The practice, the authors say, is “nothing short of playing Russian Roulette with the lives of third parties”.
They also take issue with the use of the pneumatic hammer (il-musmar), saying the equipment produces vibrations that can cause damage to the integrity of third-party property.
Another issue identified is the lack of minimum standards or regulation defining a number of people who carry out works at a building site, including contractors, tradesmen, skilled workers and operators.
At present, anyone can do the ‘supposedly skilled’ jobs, risking very low quality
For a range of construction professions there is no register or classification by specialisation, with the risk of skilled jobs being carried out to low quality by people who do not have the required knowledge.
“At present anyone can do the ‘supposedly skilled’ jobs, risking very low quality, and even dangerous practice, because the required knowledge and standards are inexistent,” the report says.
How did we get here?
Professionals believe that when Malta underwent a reform in planning, it didn’t consider that building and construction regulation would have to expand in tandem.
“When new planning policies were introduced, the authorities didn’t really introduce concurrent building regulations to cater for them,” President of the Chamber of Architects Andre Pizzuto said.
He says that when planning constraints changed, people were encouraged to develop and redevelop a number of sites to raise standards. As a result, existing properties surrounded by third parties were being pulled down and redeveloped rather than empty plots being developed.
Excavation was also previously uncommon, with properties rarely including subterranean levels.
“In the past, this wasn’t really done, it’s an expense and no one wanted to spend money for its sake,” he continues.
“But once planning constraints changed, property value increased and there was pressure to redevelop and release that value. But now we were pulling down houses and excavating in already settled areas.”
On the use of certain machinery, Pizzuto said there was nothing wrong with the equipment per se, but a lack of minimum standards meant it was up to anyone to decide on their use.
“Bigger machinery gets the job done faster, but it’s not without pitfalls. Usually, machinery is chosen based on whether it can get the job done quicker and cheaper than an alternative. When there are no limitations, unfortunately anything goes,” he said.
What does the report propose?
In their recommendations, the authors suggest the restriction of pneumatic hammers and excavation equipment to specific areas within a construction site, with the establishment of zones where such equipment definitely cannot be used.
In some detail, the report also suggests an overhaul of the way construction is regulated.
This would include the introduction of the concept of technical feasibility, upgrading the existing regulatory framework, defining the roles and responsibilities on a building site, strengthening enforcement and empowering the Building and Construction Agency to regulate the sector.
The report also proposes the registration and classification of professionals, contractors and operators in all areas of the industry.
Breaches of certain regulations could be criminalised to serve as a deterrent, the authors also suggest.
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