• Irungu Houghton

Let us not build modern day towers of Babel


The terrifying sight of a collapsing building in Kinoo, Kiambu county this week comes in the wake of several recent horrific building incidents. What can we do to stop these recurrent disasters and protect against further loss of life and investment?


Citizen journalists quickly alerted the nation of the narrow escape of twenty workers as a six-storey building began to collapse on top of them. Sad comparisons with the Leaning Tower of Pisa or as the Italians call it, Torre Pendente di Pisa, attempted to distract us from recognising a crime scene that almost buried several people alive. 28-year-old David Okiki was not that lucky. He perished on 26 August, weeks before his wedding, after a crane accident killed him and eight others at that Qwetu construction site in Kilimani, Nairobi.


According to the Building in Kenya Developers Toolkit, it is illegal to erect a building without land and quantity surveyors, architects, engineers, lawyers, agents, contractors, and clerks of works. Apart from these professionals, you must be familiar with area physical plans, carry out environment impact assessments and follow zoning regulations, building codes, design standards and regulations.


Despite this, building related disasters are neither new nor rare. According to the National Construction Authority 2020 report, 10,791 out of 14,895 buildings they assessed are unsafe and need to be rebuilt or demolished. That two in three buildings have violated construction by-laws is glaring. The Gachie building that collapsed last week, killed three and injured several, had been condemned as it lacked requisite approvals from the Kiambu County Government physical planning department and the National Construction Authority. With these figures, we must now challenge the entire eco-system and the professional chain and not view these incidents as accidents.


We must directly confront the complicity and impunity that surrounds greedy developers, unprofessional contractors, and corrupt state officers. Kilimani ward in Nairobi is a case in point. The ward has an average growth rate of 17 per cent over the last five years. The growth has been largely unplanned, unregulated, and violated several urban development, devolution and public participation laws and guidelines. Zoning guidelines have collapsed across Kilimani and Nairobi. Eight years of Kidero, Sonko and Badi Administrations have taken Nairobi from physical plans and infrastructure led development to zoning and development approvals based on the height of the last tallest building.


In response, residents under the Kilimani Project Foundation designed an independent ‘KiliWatch’ residents witness system a year ago. They have held no less than seven regular online public forums with NEMA, National Construction Authority, NMS, and other regulatory bodies. Over sixty developments that have violated building planning processes and procedures have been reported to the authorities in the past year alone. None of them, including the ill-fated projects on Wood Avenue that collapsed last month, injuring two, nor Qwetu have been stopped or re-designed.


We ignore these signs at our own risk. If we survive the collapsing buildings, we will still have to deal with constant insecurity, water shortages, poor roads and drainage systems, environmental and noise pollution. It is time that county governments, national regulatory bodies, professional associations, and resident associations develop bottom-up, eyes on the ground, accountability strategies to deal the deaths and dangers that come with urban densification across the nation.


Let us not build modern day towers of Babel. We know how that ended.


This opinion was also published in the Sunday Standard, 5 September 2021


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