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16.02.2007 General News

The construction problem in Ghana: The way forward

By (ghanaian-chronicle)
The construction problem in Ghana: The way forward

THE INTERMITTENT collapse of buildings in Accra and Kumasi has brought to the fore the problems and inefficiencies in the construction industry in Ghana.

These inefficiencies however call for immediate attention and redress by the government and all stakeholders in the industry to forestall any unforeseen calamity. Even though the statutory bodies which plan the orderly development of our towns and cities have come under intensive criticism for the laxity and non adherence to building regulations in our country, the essence of this article is not to stress on the planning and design issues but to provide readers with a panoramic view of the inherent inefficiencies in the construction industry.

Though, the building industry in Ghana is very buoyant and a significant contributor to the national economy in terms of gross domestic product and employment generation, successive governments have not done much in terms of research, product development and training of professionals and artisans such as carpenters, masons, plumbers, painters, tilers, steel binders, electricians and so on.

The government of Ghana, as in many countries, is the major developer and therefore dominates the economic viability of the construction industry. Billions of cedis of the taxpayers' money is committed to construction projects annually through budgetary allocation, donor funded projects and Foreign Direct Investment. I dare to say that much of the remittances from Ghanaians abroad and resources of the private sector go into investment in the building and construction industry. We often complain about delays in building and construction projects and the poor performance of contractors executing various government projects but nothing is done to address these perennial problems.

In the UK for instance, the construction industry contributes 8% of gross domestic product and employs 1.9 million people. The construction business is worth £65 billion a year, of which direct expenditure by government departments and their agencies accounts for £7.5 billion. When successive UK governments identified inefficiencies and under performance in the sector, independent reviews such as Latham (1994) and Egan (1998) sponsored by the government were set up to identify and improve the culture, attitudes and working practices, which impact negatively on the industry.

The decisions that developers or clients make at the preliminary and construction stages of the project, have far reaching consequences for the successful delivery of the project. If developers are better informed and educated about the implications of the various delivery systems and decision-making, most of the construction problems may be reduced. In Ghana, political considerations and sensitivities override detailed preparation and planning of construction projects. Projects are often rushed without sufficient budgetary allocation and proper assessment about the need. There is insufficient time for thorough feasibility studies and project analysis.

Ineffective and slow decision-making involving all project parties, within the developer's team, consultant's team and the contractor's team are major difficulties confronting the construction and building industry.

Inexperienced developers, for instance, are not able to set clear objectives and subject the objectives initially to a careful trade-off analysis.

The detailed briefing on the functional and technical requirements of construction projects is not carefully assessed by developers and consequently creates lapses in the design and construction process.

For a successful construction project to be achieved, the design information and documentation, including drawings and specifications should provide the contractor with a clearly defined basis to plan the resource needs of the project. Design risk is increased whenever work is started before the architect or engineer has had sufficient opportunity to fully ascertain the developer's needs. A brief is a very specialized task to be undertaken by an experienced person who can treat it with great care. Failure of the architect or engineer to gain a full insight into the developer's operations, and then give him the fullest possible picture of what is possible and what is not within the parameters of the brief, results in design changes and creates construction problems which many times, results in cost overruns. There is the tendency for architects and engineers to design without adequate information and knowledge, not only on the availability of materials they recommend but also as to their performance in the environment for which it is being recommended.

The contractual arrangement in vogue in the country is based on the premise that a developer has sufficient financial resources to undertake a project and the contractor has the necessary expertise to accept the project. Contractors and consultants are seldom paid promptly for work done; the processing procedure for payment certificates is bureaucratic. Often poor financial management by developers means that funds are not available to pay the contractors. Small and medium- sized contractors have limited access to funds, as they are seldom able to offer the necessary fixed assets as collateral. Advance payments by developers are rare and abused when it is paid. Interim payments are routinely delayed and construction companies are often faced with severe financial difficulties.

Most construction companies in Ghana are sole owners, headed by entrepreneurs without expertise in construction, and with an interest in many other fields. Contracts are often awarded not to the expert in the industry but people with political, social and 'old boy' linkages that lack management, planning, cost control and site management skills. Many of the contractors cannot interpret the architectural, engineering drawings and specifications by the design consultants and these result in construction problems.

The construction and building industry has long depended on middle-aged crafts people.

The number of craft operatives such as skilled carpenters, masons, plumbers, steel binders etc. has reduced significantly and investment in the training of new and existing workers in the construction industry has often been limited. The apprentice system is seemingly in terminal decline with widespread skill shortages. The technical education and vocational training institutes responsible for the training of craftsmen are under performing because of inadequate financial, equipment and logistical support from the government.

Owing to the low level of manufacturing and extractive development in Ghana, most construction materials are imported. Uncertainty in the delivery of ordered materials and shortage of funds to procure materials are often used by contractors as an excuse for not completing projects on schedule. The material shortages could be minimized if design professionals could be prudent in their design and specification.

The problems in the building and construction industry are worsening by the lack of an effective legislative instrument to regulate professionals trained to ensure good practice and supervision of projects. Apart from the architect decree 1969, N.L.C.D. 357 which empowers the Architects' Registration Council to regulate operations and architectural practices in the country, there seems to be no legal instruction to regulate the wayside and half trained technicians and other building professionals like engineers, quantity surveyors etc. What prevents the government from setting up a regulatory body to regulate the operations of contractors, subcontractors and tradesmen? What about setting up a body like Building Council? What measures are there to strengthen the weak Municipal and Metropolitan Planning Committees?

The problems of the construction industry as discussed are enormous and call for comprehensive solutions to address the inefficiencies in the industry. Strict emphasis should be placed on project analysis before the commencement and authorization of projects.

The project objectives should be clearly defined and developers should allow sufficient time to prepare briefs and other feasibility studies. Feasibilities should cover the soil, statutory and other building requirements.

Design briefs should be drawn up by qualified and experienced personnel. Value management and engineering approaches should be carried out to optimize the whole life designed time, cost and quality.

The construction industries ability to improve and be innovative will be impeded if it does not invest in training, research and development. In order to improve contractors' managerial skills there is the need for continuous work-training programmes for personnel in the industry to update their knowledge and be familiar with materials, construction methods and technologies. Project management techniques and processes; institutional strengthening and development in the areas of planning and scheduling, cost control, and overall site management must be enforced to enhance the successful delivery of projects.

Manpower and skill development schemes should be developed by the government and all construction stakeholders. Systematic apprenticeship schemes must be supported by the government and construction companies to sustain, train and improve on the skills of artisans such as masons, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, steel binders and so on.

Research and development in the use of standardization, prefabrication and modularization should be encouraged. In Japan for example, the top five construction companies invest one per cent of their turnover in research and development. In the UK between 1999/2000, £270 million was spent on construction research and development. Of this, £47 million was spent by the central government departments and £147 million by the construction industry.

Government projects should be commissioned only when there is adequate funding to start and complete the project, so that contractors can be paid in accordance with the contract agreement. Appropriate funding levels should always be determined at the planning stage of the project. This however calls for comprehensive economic analysis and workable financial plans to be prepared before contracts are awarded.

The private sector should be encouraged to participate in financing public – sector projects. This could take place in the form of equity participation or with other credit facility arrangements.

Alternative contract methods such as build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) schemes could be introduced to encourage contractors to participate in financing new projects.

There are abundant untapped natural materials in the form of lumber, quarry, stones, granite, laterite, lime, etc. scattered throughout the geographical regions of Ghana. The government should encourage investment in building material production with incentive packages to investors. International construction companies and manufacturers should be persuaded to invest in building materials development and production.

The procurement process must be strengthened to challenge the need for the project before implementation. Gateway reviews must be introduced in the procurement process to address the lack of clarity and business case of projects. The procurement process should be insulated from political interferences to ensure efficiency in the construction and building industry.

The writer works with the Ghana Tourist Board, Kumasi