Aneha seen as just part of problem

Flaws in building designs, inspection system slip though cracks

Architect Haruyasu Kawaguchi thought something was wrong when he looked at the blueprints and concrete pillars of a condominium high-rise in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture. This was on Nov. 22, 2005, for a TV program, a few days after a major shoddy construction scam was revealed.

The condo, still under construction, was one of dozens of structures using faked quake-resistance data provided by Hidetsugu Aneha, who was at the center of the scandal and was sentenced Tuesday to five years in prison.

“Pillars on the second floor up to the 10th had the same amount of reinforcing rods, and the amount was less than normal. It was unbelievable,” because usually the amount differs depending on the floor, said Kawaguchi, a member of Kenchiku G Men, a nonprofit group in Tokyo that provides consultation for people living in defective housing.

He also considered it unlikely the builder of the Funabashi structure did not notice the problematic design.

The defective building fraud involving Aneha stung scores of people financially, forced hotels and condos to close and raised suspicions that his misdeeds were just the tip of the iceberg. Besides fueling public concerns over structural safety, the affair prompted the Diet to revise building-related laws to improve architects’ capabilities and bolster building project inspections.

But experts say the legal changes alone will not be enough due to fundamental flaws in the building industry.

Aneha, who was stripped of his first-class architect’s license last December, was arrested in April for falsifying quake-resistance data specifically for six buildings. During his Tokyo District Court trial, he admitted faking structural engineering data to make as much money as possible. He defended himself by saying major earthquakes that could bring down the shoddy structures are rare.

According to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, Aneha faked structural engineering calculations for 99 condos and hotels in 18 prefectures.

Some had less than 50 percent of the required quake-resistance strength stipulated under the Building Standards Law and would not be able to withstand a quake with an intensity of 5 or higher on the Japanese seismic scale to 7.

“Aneha was a rare case of an architect committing fraud. The revision is good enough to prevent cases like his,” said Toru Hosono, a journalist who writes about architecture and holds a first-class architect’s license as well.

“But more defective buildings will be constructed” unless the situation surrounding the construction industry changes, Hosono said.

Since the bubble economy of the late 1980s, the construction industry has constantly been short of capable workers: Young people avoid taking hard, dirty and dangerous jobs at building sites.

With pressure on contractors to finish projects on schedule and to minimize costs, especially after the bubble burst, corners are cut. In some cases, concrete was watered down and not enough steel reinforcement rods were used, industrial experts say.

Hosono said the quality of workers also is deteriorating and hence so are the structures they build.

Cozy ties between builders and the entities entrusted with inspecting their work and ensuring safety also leave open the door to shoddy construction.

Under the Building Standards Law, architects are expected to check the construction projects they are involved in, but there are cases when corporate interests overlap, allowing slipshod structures to go up, Kawaguchi of G Men said.

Even if builders notice, for example, that a condo building has design flaws, they would be reluctant to alert authorities because this would lead to a halt in construction and financial losses for them and other developers, he said.

To beef up inspections, the government is planning a system in which buildings three stories or higher would have to be checked by a designated inspection firm or a municipality during construction, in addition to examining designs and completed structures.

However, Kawaguchi said, “The measure will be meaningless if the inspection activities continue to be superficial.”

Municipalities and inspection firms have too many structures to scrutinize, and not all inspectors are capable of checking structural engineering calculations, he said.

Given these circumstances, it is no wonder that developers, builders, municipalities and certified inspection firms did not detect Aneha’s falsified quake-resistance data for nearly a decade, experts say.

“I think a third party needs to check building sites at least five times and conduct careful examinations” to prevent shoddy construction, Kawaguchi said.

The Aneha scandal has led to real changes in the industry, however.

More developers are meeting with prospective condo buyers to explain about their structures and to disclose information on quake-resistance data. Some are even showing buyers the construction sites.

While Hosono thinks it is good that users are able to take a hard look at their planned purchases, Kawaguchi cautioned that ordinary people aren’t qualified to spot defects.

To enhance the quality of architects, the Diet in June revised the Building Standards Law to toughen the maximum penalty for architects and builders involved in the construction of unsafe buildings, raising the present penalty — a 500,000 yen fine with no prison term — to 3 million yen with a maximum prison term of three years.

In addition, the Architect Certification Law was revised this month to require architects to have more extensive training and allow only specialists to design buildings that stand 20 meters or taller.

The government will require that certified inspection firms, or municipalities that fulfill the same role, to recheck statements on quake-resistance data for reinforced concrete buildings 20 meters or higher and wooden buildings 13 meters or higher.

The government plans to require developers to buy insurance to protect consumers who buy defective dwellings.

Condo buyers burned by Aneha’s shoddy designs have had a tough time footing the bill to rebuild their dwellings, and hotels have been forced to shut down so that reinforcement work can be carried out.

In many cases, the parties stung by the building fraud have little chance of seeking redress because firms involved in the fiasco, including developer Huser Ltd. and Kimura Construction Co., have failed.

Owners of condos in Grand Stage Kawasaki Taishi in Kawasaki, which was built with Aneha data, have finally begun procedures to dismantle the building next year and build a new complex by December 2008, said Mitsuhide Taira, one of the residents.

“The owners have to shoulder new loans (for the reconstruction). My new loan will be 30 million yen,” he said. “The government has changed laws, but the revision has nothing to do with us. I feel anger, because the government has not provided measures to resolve the fundamental problems” stemming from the Aneha scandal.

Journalist Hosono said it will take time to establish such a new insurance system because major developers that have enough funds are not willing to support it.

“What consumers should do is to check whether companies involved in condos are trustworthy . . . and at the least fasten down their furniture” as a precaution against a major quake.

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