Solid foundations?

Shoddy construction remains a problem in China’s real estate market

A general view shows a collapsed building in Zhuhai, Guangdong province

Needs more than a lick of paint

Six years ago this week an earthquake in Sichuan left more than 88,000 people dead or missing. There was public anger when it emerged that 5,300 of the dead were pupils killed when their schools collapsed. Shoddy construction standards were blamed.

Last week a residential block in Shanghai also fell to the floor, killing two people, according to the Oriental Morning Post. “In other countries, an 8.0 quake only kills eight people,” one netizen fumed. “But our houses collapse on days without even a hint of trouble.”

According to initial reports, the three-storey structure crumbled after a gas explosion. The building was one of the last remaining in a slum area. Most of the other residents in the district had been moved out as part of government programme.

But the accident in Shanghai isn’t unusual. This week a factory collapsed in heavy rain in Qingdao, for instance, killing 18 people inside. In April, a five-storey residential tower disintegrated near Ningbo in Zhejiang, killing one person and burying several others in the rubble. Residents had reported cracks in the building to the local authorities but hadn’t received a response, says Ningbo TV.

Regular readers of WiC will remember the fate of another residential tower in Shanghai which toppled over shortly before its construction was complete in 2009. Visually it made for a strange sight, as it fell on its side virtually intact.

In the same year, 17 people were killed when a two-storey building from the 1980s subsided in Hebei after heavy rain.

Back in issue 56 we also quoted remarks from Qiu Baoxin, the deputy housing minister, that the average building in China wasn’t expected to last more than 25 to 30 years. Qiu said that poor quality construction and weak design wasn’t conducive to longer lifespans.

Another government official agreed more recently that much of the existing housing stock isn’t fit for purpose. “Given China’s fast economic development and pace of urbanisation, houses built between 1979 and 1999 cannot meet the demands of modern living… Only those homes built after 1999 are likely to be preserved in the longer term,” Chen Huai, a senior researcher from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, told Southern Metropolis Daily.

Still, the economics of knocking down vast swathes of property and starting again won’t always be attractive. Hence Xinmin Weekly argues that repairing and restoring older stock is going to be “big business” as buildings continue to age (in many cases rather ungracefully).

Take Shanghai. It had a major construction boom in the 1980s when its economy was one of the first to prosper as part of China’s reform era. As a result, the number of buildings in the city in need of repair is greater. “Many of the buildings constructed during that period are old masonry buildings with hollow walls. So as they age, they pose serious security risks… For companies that repair old structures, these buildings are undoubtedly a big cake to feast on,” Xinmin Weekly suggests.

As a result, construction companies are establishing specialist units that can take charge of restoration projects, the newspaper points out. One example is Shanghai Construction Group: it used to confine itself to new build property projects but it has since added a repair-and-refurbishment unit.

“The amount of land in the city (Shanghai) is limited. The local government can’t keep selling large parcels of land to developers. New buildings are getting old and old buildings need repairing. In the long run, Shanghai’s building restoration industry is only going to get bigger,” says Wang Anshi from the Shanghai Municipal Housing Authority.

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