Architects go to war every day: KTP chief testifies in Sofia inquiry

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Updated 6.30pm

Architects often find themselves caught up between different authorities and their disgruntled clients, the president of the profession’s regulatory body told court on Friday, urging for one centralised entity that regulated the building industry. 

“It’s like going to war every day. You either fight with some entity or with the client,” Kamra tal-Periti (Chamber of Architects) president Andre’ Pizzuto said.

Pizzuto was testifying in the public inquiry into the death of Jean Paul Sofia, a 20-year-old who was buried under the remains of a timber factory that was being constructed at Corradino.

The chamber’s president said that reforming the building sector was a slow-moving process.

Up until a few years ago, “conscientious” architects often went beyond the remit of their profession to impose standards on building contractors. Back then, standards were considered an extra expense, while architects were viewed as an added inconvenience, he said.

A series of collapses, followed by the death of Miriam Pace and Sofia, brought about a shift in public opinion and a growing awareness of the gravity of the situation.

But rather than the series of entities that have been set up to regulate the sector, giving rise to a series of gaps in the system, the chamber is proposing one central authority that would set building and construction regulations as well as issue licences of all labourers working in construction, Pizzuto said.

Such a system would function in a simple manner: “it would be subject to one condition, namely that we live in a normal country where each player knows what they are doing,” Judge Emeritus and chair of the board Joseph Zammit McKeon said.

“But if one of those fails along the way, who would bring him in check,” Zammit McKeon asked. 

The current system is amateurish, replied Pizzuto, citing by way of example a recently proposed regulation that would, among others, allow a builder “over the age of 18” to be issued with a contractor’s licence to oversee workers. 

Pizzuto drew comparison with large private projects that adopted a  “sophisticated set up” of skilled workers, quality assurance and control and insurance cover. 

“Accidents do not happen there. The set up provides for checks upon checks. Accidents happen in small and medium projects.”

Is it time for a moratorium? 

Pizzuto said the chamber had put many proposals to the Building and Construction Authority, however, the drafts it received in reply were nothing but “shocking”.

These included having an architect  – who is not the same one that designd the project – appointed by a contractor to certify that the contractor himself is capable of carrying out the project.  

Pizzuto decried lack of national building regulations that guide architects. 

Asked by the chair whether it was “time for a moratorium, putting all development on hold until we put our house in order”, the witness said that that measure was “rather controversial and extreme”.

He did, however, acknowledge a sense of urgency.

“There’s a need to roll up our sleeves. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need to implement existing standards: that’s all.”

The chamber itself has already issued “design codes” setting standards for the profession rather than wait for “20 or 30 years” on the authorities to come up with such codes. 

The anonymous BCA team

Pizzuto also expressed concern about the anonymity of architects engaged by BCA to check method statements. 

That practice was unethical and illegal, he said.

The situation had given rise to a “blatant conflict of interest” and an offence in terms of the Periti Act. 

Describing the situation as “obscene”, Pizzuto said that an architect should not write a method statement for the contractor.

“While the anonymous BCA team requests alterations to the method statement, it is the architect that is having to shoulder responsibility.” 

‘Hostage negotiators’

In his testimony, Pizzuto claimed architects often found thelselves caught up between different entities, having to step in as “hostage negotiators” to “extract the client from the trap they find themselves in on account of these entities”. 

This was leading to architects giving up the profession or moving abroad.

“It’s tragic,” observed Pizzuto, describing how architects “went to war each day” waging battle with one entity or another, or with their clients. 

Pizzuto said the BCA should have jurisdiction over all buildings, regulations and enforcement.

KTP resources

As questions turned to the chamber’s resources, the witness said that funding came primarily from membership fees and events. 

However, “to be fair”, the current administration was helping the chamber “quite a lot”. 

“The minister is receptive to our proposals. He also gave us a budget to develop a digital platform.” 

A state of anarchy 10 years ago: Building Industry Construction Council chair

Taking the witness stand, architect Charles Buhagiar said that when he took on the role of chair of the Building Industry Construction Council chair 10 years ago, the industry “was in a state of anarchy.”

Progress was registered since then, however, the BCA still lacked the necessary regulatory framework to set and enforce standards. 

As a forum gathering all stakeholders in the industry, the BICC has worked upon a series of initiatives, making suggestions to the relative ministers to improve the situation at construction sites. 

Workers in the field must be aware of the risks involved at the construction site and no one should be allowed on site unless in possession of a health and safety card, Buhagiar said.

This is why the council introduced training courses on health and safety and proposed a mandatory skills card.

Under the previous administration, the date of January 1, 2022 had been scheduled for the introduction of this mandatory requirement. When the portfolio was assigned to another minister, that deadline was extended. 

“So far, it has still not become mandatory,” said Buhagiar.

Perhaps the fact that there were some 22,000 people who worked in the construction sector did not help, but hopefully the skills card requirement will be introduced in the near future, he added.

The council had also suggested setting up a regulatory body – a proposal that led to the birth of the BCA.

“But how can it enforce non-existent standards?”remarked the witness, hinting at the prevailing “fragmented” approach. 

Regulations are required to ensure that buildings are safe not only for third parties but also for those who live in them. 

Asked by board member court expert Mario Cassar whether a skills card should be a pre-requisite for a contractor’s licence, Buhagiar said the council had insisted contractors should have trained workers. 

A skills cards would attest such training. Unfortunately, accidents happened when workers lacking expertise were allowed on construction sites.

Geologists not consulted

Another witness at the lengthy Friday session, Peter Gatt, said that despite the fact that knowledge of the terrain was essential when undertaking a construction project, in Malta geologists were not consulted.

Unlike many other countries, Malta still lacked a national geological service engaging professionals to survey the terrain and building materials, the president of the Malta Chamber of Geologists said.

A geological map of Malta referred to in a recent legal notice was riddled with errors and this led to misinformation, while legislation on damage to third party property was updated last year, but geologists had been totally ignored, he added.

Doing away with previously required “geological investigation” meant that legislation that was meant to enhance public safety, had actually weakened it. The legal notice, he said, was “a parody”. 

A geologist’s role was different to that of a geotechnical engineer, Gatt explained, adding that a geologist’s report would provide the basis for a geotechnical engineer to design the foundations of a project.

Unfortunately geologists were currently not even acknowledged nor granted a warrant. 

‘Between 2013 and 2019, control was in the hands of MDA’

Another person to takt the witness stand – former chair and CEO at BICC John Ebejer – said that between 2013 and 2019 “practically nothing was done” when it comes to regulations and enforcement. 

For instance, the BCA had no obligation to publish method statements, making them accessible to worried neighbours of construction projects. 

He recalled having urged for the introduction of environmental management of construction sites regulations in 2007 and avoidance of damage to third parties regulations five years later.

But 2013 and 2019 the government appeared to have “no control”.

“Control was in the hands of Malta Developers Association,” said Ebejer, recalling a press conference during which attendees were given the impression that the association was going to launch a contractor’s licence.

But what the association did was simply take down the names of applicants, against a fee, he said.

“It was just a reaction to the mounting pressure after a series of incidents,” he added.

Did the BCA just rubber stamp method statements?

The last witness for Friday was architect Tano Zammit who requested to testify in the inquiry.

He spoke of the “very concerning” practice in which method statements are scrutinised simply by “ticking boxes” without any approved Planning Authority plans attached to the statements. 

Asked whether the BCA could dismiss a method statement or whether it simply acted as a “rubber stamp”, Zammit said his impression was the latter, and “whoever scrutinised them [method statements] was a state secret”. 

The inquiry resumes on Saturday. 

The board is chaired by judge Emeritus and Ombudsman Joseph Zammit McKeon, alongside perit Mario Cassar and Auditor General Charles Deguara.

Lawyers Therese Comodini Cachia, Eve Borg Costanzi and Matthew Cutajar are assisting the family.

State Advocate Chris Soler and lawyer Anthony Borg are representing the State. 

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