News that surfaced over a condominium complex in Yokohama — the faulty foundation work for its construction that caused one of the buildings to tilt and the falsification of the related data — must be causing concern among not just the residents of the complex but people elsewhere, since the company responsible for the shoddy job conducted the same type of work for construction of more than 3,000 commercial and residential buildings across Japan over the past 10 years. All parties concerned, including government authorities, should unravel why and how the faulty work and data manipulation were committed and devise concrete ways to prevent such wrongdoing.
Public concern and the anger of the residents should be all the greater because the complex, consisting of four buildings with 705 residential units, is only 8 years old and big-name companies were responsible for its construction and sale. Sumitomo Mitsui Construction Co. was the main constructor and Mitsui Fudosan Residential Co. sold the condominiums. Asahi Kasei Construction Materials Corp., a subsidiary of Asahi Kasei Corp., was in charge of the work to drive piles into the ground to provide underground support for the buildings.
As early as November 2014, residents of the complex notified Mitsui Fudosan Residential that the handrails in one of the buildings connected through passageways with those of the adjacent building had sunk about 2 cm — a sign that the building had tilted. The company reportedly suggested to the residents that the gap might be attributable to damage from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. It wasn’t until this past July that the firm told the residents that two of the building’s piles could not be confirmed to have reached the solid ground known as the support layer. The company should reflect on its failure to provide the residents with a quick and sincere response.
Then Asahi Kasei Construction Materials, which checked the records on 473 piles of the four buildings, announced that data had been falsified on 38 piles used for three buildings, 10 of them under the one that tilted. Six of the 10 piles hadn’t reached the support layer and two others were not driven into it deeply enough. Its parent company also said data had been fabricated concerning the amount of cement poured to cover the tips of 45 piles used in three buildings for reinforcement.
The data manipulation consisted of diversion of data from other construction sites and deliberate addition of fictitious data. Although Asahi Kasei Construction Materials blames a worker at the construction site of the Yokohama complex for both the piling and cement data falsification, many questions concerning his actions remain unanswered. The company must investigate his alleged actions, and also determine why they went unchecked. The companies involved also should move quickly to examine the seismic safety of the buildings.
The latest scandal exposes the inherent weakness of the system of checking construction work’s compliance with rules, including the Building Standards Law, which is carried out by local governments or designated private-sector inspection agencies. Local governments and inspection agencies say that under the current system, it is practically impossible to detect irregularities in piling work once the work has been completed — because the system is effectively based on an assumption that workers will not engage in misconduct.
While it is imperative that people engaged in construction work have high ethical standards, what happened in Yokohama underlines the need for both the public and private sectors to improve the verification system. It strengthens the case, for example, for workers from major contractors to be present at construction sites frequently and for improving in-process inspections by local governments or inspection agencies.
A decade ago, the nation was rocked by a building-design scandal, in which a structural engineer was found to have fabricated earthquake-resistance data in designs for many buildings. The case led the government to revise the Building Standards Law and strengthen pre-checks, requiring local governments and inspection agencies to examine structural calculation sheets for buildings before construction begins. But no revisions were made at that time concerning piling work for building foundations.
Currently, companies in charge of piling work have no legal obligation to submit relevant raw data to inspection institutions. These institutions mainly rely on records and drawings submitted by companies. Although they have to examine an enormous amount of documents in checking the legal compliance of construction work, the government should consider requiring companies to submit raw data on piling work because it plays such a critical role in building safety.
The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has started examining whether the businesses concerned in the latest problem violated any laws. It also should find out whether pressure to reduce construction costs and shorten the construction period was behind the faulty work.
In the mean time, Asahi Kasei, Mitsui Fudosan Residential and Sumitomo Mitsui Construction should sincerely listen to the demands of the residents, compensate them fairly and strive to repair or rebuild the structure as quickly as possible.
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