Building It Right The First Time – Demolished Hopes in China and Beyond

A recent report by the Chinese Daily draws attention to issues of building and policy standards for public housing. Six new government-subsidized apartment buildings in Beijing were demolished by public officials due to faulty building materials and improper reinforcement. China plans to build 5.8 million more government-subsidized apartments over the course of the year, so this kind of risk – social, environmental and financial has to be addressed.

These demolitions highlight several core issues in global urban social housing development:

  • Failure of government contracting, procurement and oversight
  • Lack of industry ethics and accountability
  • Corner- and cost-cutting in low-margin market segments
  • Inadequate investment in research of improved low-cost, sustainable and commercially viable materials and building techniques
  • No deployment of life cycle analysis
  • Minimal visibility of the shortcomings of private developers in mass social housing
  • Poor governance in real estate transactions, especially those for base of the pyramid markets

It’s no wonder that citizens’ groups are so roundly skeptical of real estate developers and construction companies when it comes to building for the masses.
The unfortunate paradox is that these contractors may not have any incentive to build sustainably at additional cost with no opportunity to make it up with a higher margin.

How much cheaper is it – for the government’s finances, the beleaguered inhabitants, the environment – to have to build, demolish, then build again? Had it been built right the first time, what other benefits might the residents have enjoyed for the same cost of building twice?

Going beyond China, the problem is the global and universal focus first on getting units built as quickly as possible without sufficient consideration and oversight of the quality of that supply, the livability of the results and the needs of the people who live there. Even when sanitary conditions improve strictly speaking, people often leave and return to slums because of:

  • their location – far away from jobs
  • the quality of the building – leaks, drafts, non-functional elevators, poor sanitation, etc.
  • amenities and services – no or limited accessible transport, social infrastructure, open space
  • appropriateness of the space for economic, social and cultural purposes
  • lack of social capital or broken social networks

Anecdotally, there are always stories of social housing projects that are empty months and years after launch.

A few thoughts beyond the standard call for more oversight and penalties for shoddy construction…

  • How about if the real estate development, construction and building industries came up with an industry-led code of conduct for quality, ethics, governance and affordability? This, in the world’s rapidly growing cities, would be a quantum leap as long as it were accompanied by credible third-party ratings and verification, as opposed to being just PR.
  • Governments and research institutions need to be incentivized to give higher priority to research and development of low-cost materials and techniques suited to sustainable and affordable housing construction.
  • NGOs and citizens groups need to tools to demand accountability by participating in these projects from inception to keys. Their feedback and comments before and after, as well as surveys of inhabitant comfort and satisfaction, could be part of an open rating system so that governments have to contract out to firms that achieve no less than a minimum rating across multiple criteria.
  • When public finances are in play, then life cycle analysis needs to be integrated into the planning process explicitly so that projects are designed and built with the long-term costs of maintenance, failures, disaster vulnerability, poor performance of mechanical systems and demolition and rebuilding accounted for.
  • There need to be more platforms and resources for developing socially-minded, ethical entrepreneurs who are building this next generation of cities. There are wonderful resources out there, like Architecture for Humanity and Monitor Inclusive Markets. Unfortunately, the first doesn’t promote entrepreneurs with scalable and replicable business models, and the second is a closed source solution (understandably, given the magnitude of their intellectual and capital investments).

This last intervention is where Smart Cities Advisors is aimed. If you’re a visionary entrepreneur in a developing country city and you need help putting together your business plan for sustainable and inclusive low-cost, social or affordable housing or mixed projects, we can help.

One final thought: do you think anyone in Beijing thought to reuse the rubble from the demolition and recycle the concrete to save new landfill, the costs of transport to landfill and the cost and energy of mining, processing and transporting new aggregates? It’d be interesting to know.

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