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Collapse of technical education responsible for dearth of artisans, says Ben-Eboh

By Guardian Nigeria
21 March 2022   |   2:42 am
Mr. Enyi Ben-Eboh is the 29th President, of the Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA). He spoke to CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM on how architects are overcoming rising inflation

Ben-Eboh

Mr. Enyi Ben-Eboh is the 29th President, of the Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA). He spoke to CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM on how architects are overcoming rising inflation and the shortage of building materials in the construction industry.

The construction industry is facing its worst moments due to the global economic meltdown. How are your members and their practices dealing with rising inflation, cost of materials and labour?
THESE are indeed trying times not only for architects but also for the majority of Nigerians, who daily have to live with the uncertainties of inflation, exchange rate volatility and the rising cost of building materials. These days, prices of materials cannot be guaranteed beyond a few days, to be modest.

As if it wasn’t bad enough pre-COVID-19, COVID came and changed the way we do business. A lot of firms have become more compact as the option of working remotely suddenly became a viable option. Thanks to technology, this new normal has become attractive to practitioners.

With the gradual easing off of the COVID challenge came the recession and galloping inflation, which shrank the purchasing power of most clients and led to an increase in the cost of building products. The high exchange rate also meant that architects had to contend with the high cost of the latest software they need to drive office processes and production.

At times like these when new commissions are few and far between, a lot of firms have had to downsize, while others have opted to outsource to freelancers, who are paid on a project-by-project basis. Some others have diversified to other aspects of the value-chain such as interiors, building components manufacture and procurement. A few more have sought greener pastures with the rising tide of brain drain.

What has been the impact of shortages of materials and tradespeople on construction projects?
The world as we know it today is a global village where a disaster in one part of the world reverberates to most parts of the world. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic jolted us all to this stark reality, especially for import-dependent economies like ours. All of a sudden, most industrialised nations shut their doors to exports and building products suddenly became scarce.

Consequently, the law of demand and supply drove prices beyond the reach of poorer nations. This underscores the urgent need for deliberate policy initiatives to drive local manufacture of those critical items we consume as a people.

Even in the best of times, the dearth of skilled artisans and technicians has always been the bane of our industry. The construction industry can be said to be top-heavy with more regulated professionals at the top and almost non-regulated artisans at the base. The collapse of technical education at the lower levels has made it difficult to grow the numbers needed to sustain the industry. It is an undisputed fact that whenever we need good tilers and Plaster of Paris (POP) installers, we often have to engage the services of such artisans from our neighbouring countries, while our trade schools are a shadow of what they ought to be.

There is, therefore, a need to re-jig our educational system to give more importance to technical education as therein lies our hope of technological advancement. The situation right now is detrimental to the growth of the sector and does not encourage bright students to go that route.

There is one rule of thumb assertion that most investors and estate agents keep in mind; real estate always appreciates by at least 3-5 per cent yearly. How should government leverage real estate to increase its GDP?

While it may be true that there’s capital appreciation in the real estate sector, it must also be appreciated that the sector is always worst-hit whenever there is a challenge with the economy. While property values in the local economy may be assumed to have increased, such increases are often erased by inflation and exchange rate depreciation. A house built for N20 million in 2015 when the dollar/naira ratio was 1/190 cannot be said to have appreciated in value if it goes for 40 million today at an exchange rate of 1/570. There is therefore the need to ensure micro-economic stability to encourage investment in the real estate sector or any other sector for that matter as whatever profit is deemed to have been made is wiped out as replacement cost.

Investment in real estate is largely profitable in the luxury class, where only a minute percentage of the population plays in. Government must therefore create an enabling environment for the sector to thrive along all strata of the socio-economic ladder by ensuring affordability of building materials and increasing access to funds through a robust mortgage system. Only then can its impact be felt across the board in boosting the GDP.

The construction industry in Nigeria has received some backlash due to recurring building collapse. Do you subscribe to the debate that the country needs health and safety legislation in the sector? What should be the modalities for operation?
While health and safety provisions on-site are desirable, they do not prevent collapse in themselves. The fundamental causes of collapses are traceable mainly to design failures, materials compromise, construction errors and lack of proper supervision by the design consultants amongst others. The various professionals, who prepared the contract drawings must work as a team to ensure that decisions taken by any of them do not have an adverse effect on the integrity of the other’s design.

They must also carry out all necessary tests on the materials being deployed to the project as early warning signals of any impending catastrophe in addition to arming themselves with all the necessary design codes, geotechnical and planning information. Above all, the qualifications of all the workers handling different aspects of the job must be verified to ensure that the right people are being used. After all, as they say in computer parlance, garbage in garbage out.

On the issue of health and safety, this is quite necessary to minimise the occurrence of accidents on-site and their effect on the workers whenever they occur. Just the same way certain schools of thought believe in addition to the contractors, all risk insurance and performance bonds being made mandatory, professional indemnity insurance should also be taken by all professionals on a project.

Architects have been calling for the extension of the local content law to the construction industry, especially in the area of mass fabrication of building components to ensure the development of affordable housing. Do you think it is feasible? How have architects fared in the design and construction industry in Nigeria?
Though the local content bill was driven mainly by the need to domesticate most of the expertise in the oil sector, its application is by no means limited to that sector. To this end, the President signed executive order five into law in February 2018 to buttress the desire of the government to guarantee sustainable growth in the science and technology space and direct all Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to engage indigenous professionals in the planning, design and execution of National Security projects. This we consider a step in the right direction though implementation is however still a challenge.

Over the years, much progress has been made in terms of growing our numbers as a pool of professionals who can stand their ground globally, and with a population of over two hundred million, there really should not be any reason why we should lack. I, therefore, use this medium to call on governments at all levels to look inward by engaging indigenous professionals if we truly desire to grow as a nation.

I would say without fear of contradiction that Nigerian architects have done well in the construction industry and have played a pivotal role in shaping the architectural landscape of our cities. A lot however still needs to be done in the lower rungs of the societal ladder in the area of affordable housing by partnering with our various research institutes and identifying investors, who would implement the findings of those research institutes to evolve appropriate materials, technology and methodology for delivering truly affordable houses through mass production and leveraging on economies of scale.

In the past, architects played lead roles in the building industry but these days, other allied professionals have taken over those roles. Is it true that structural engineers and quantity surveyors sometimes usurp your duties and authority on-site?
The role of the architect as the leader of the building team has not changed and is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. The building industry in Nigeria comprises of about seven major professions, each with their defined role on a building project. These roles are clearly spelt out in the various laws regulating the practice of these professions. There are also various procurement methods governing the execution of projects within the industry and their provisions are quite clear.

These provisions are often times jettisoned by some private sector clients out of mischief in a bid to cut corners and we are living witnesses to the embarrassing spate of collapses and building failures resulting from such errors of judgement on the part of the developers.

Only an architect who does not know his value will allow his authority to be usurped by any other professional on-site because when the chips are down, he or she bears professional liability for any failure arising from his/her commission or omissions as the architect of the project.

With the growth in the practice globally, graduates of architecture are diversifying into entrepreneurship such as interior design, furniture design, and production as well as animation. What are your plans to encourage entrepreneurship in architecture and assure sustainability?
Necessity is often said is the mother of invention. Architecture always exists within the context of space, time, and technology amongst other factors. With the changing times, architecture is also evolving and our graduates are exploring the vast value-chain, which had hitherto been left to all-comers and are now using their training and talents to create wealth for themselves in these emerging specialities.

With the advent of COVID-19 which was later followed by the economic recession with its attendant effect on the availability of mainstream commissions, a lot of architects are now putting on their running costs by adopting remote working as a viable option to keeping large office spaces. With the advancement in technology, 3-D modelling, animation, augmented/virtual reality and Building Information Modelling (BIM) are new vistas that have been opened for graduates of architecture who want to venture into these areas.

Architecture is a very broad-based profession and practitioners are highly adaptable to changing realities, especially in this disruptive age we live in. These possibilities formed a prominent part of our recently concluded retreat at which we looked seriously into creating these specialities as recognized sub-sections of the architecture profession with a full-fledged institute for each of them in the near future.

Why has the institute not been involved in the conservation of heritage assets in a way that sustains and enhances their significance? Is NIA planning to do so?
On the contrary, the NIA has been in the forefront of advoc
ating and documenting heritage buildings with a view to preserving their significance and history. To this effect, the institute recently launched its architecture book in two volumes, which is a compendium of buildings from the pre-colonial era to the post-independence era and this publication has received positive reviews from stakeholders. The third volume will document buildings in the modern and post-modern era and hopefully, that should be due for publication before the end of the year.

Additionally, the institute also has a Heritage committee,0 which is currently headed by one of our respected past presidents, Tunji Bolu and that committee is charged with the responsibility of identifying buildings of heritage significance and liaising with the relevant stakeholders to ensure that they are preserved for posterity.

The work of this committee is to be cascaded to the state chapters to ensure a national outlook. We are also liaising with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in the case of listed buildings. As is often said, if we do not tell our story, nobody else will.