The defective construction of residential buildings by major apartment operator Leopalace21 Corp. will force thousands of tenants to vacate their homes due to safety concerns. Both the company and the authorities need to determine why such large-scale faulty construction was allowed to happen and take steps to ensure such problems aren’t repeated in the future.

The apartments were reportedly built with ceiling and wall material that didn’t meet the specifications of the Building Standards Law, thus compromising the standards for fireproofing and sound insulation. Leopalace21 said 1,324 apartments across Japan — in which 14,443 people now live — are affected. The company is requesting some 7,800 residents of 641 properties that are deemed particularly dangerous in the event of a fire to move out by the end of March, and also plans to urge tenants living in other defective apartments to vacate their units later so the defective construction can be repaired. The moving costs will be shouldered by the apartment operator.

Leopalace21 builds apartments for landowners. It rents out the properties and manages the apartment units — mainly for single occupants — and the landowners are guaranteed a certain level of income. The company currently operates 570,000 apartments nationwide.

Defective construction involving so many buildings and residents is quite unusual. The problems have been found in properties built between 1996 and 2001. Leopalace21 says the flaws were discovered as it probed the properties it built in the past after faulty construction was discovered in some of its other apartments last year. In some instances, only one of two specified materials that must be installed together in ceilings to make them fireproof was used, while in other cases specified materials were not used at all where they are required.

In a news conference, the company’s management blamed the problem on decisions made by people in charge of building the apartments who were pursuing a more efficient construction process. While acknowledging a weak sense of legal compliance on the part of these people, poor communication with others involved and the company’s flawed system of managing the entire construction process, the management denied that the defective construction was due to orders by the company to cut costs.

However, it seems hardly credible that the defective construction of so many apartments in as many as 33 prefectures was carried out solely at the discretion of the people who were responsible for the construction at the building sites. It should be thoroughly examined whether there was any organized involvement by the company that either allowed or pushed for the faulty construction. While the company has pledged to conduct a full-scale probe into the case, it says it’s not thinking of commissioning a third-party group to carry out the investigation.

One problem for the residents who have to move is that the revelation coincided with the busiest season for the moving industry — which is facing a growing manpower shortage — with large numbers of people moving as they prepare to enter new schools and companies at the start of the new fiscal year in April. It’s possible that the relocation of the residents will take a considerable amount of time, even though the company says it will cover moving costs and will offer the affected people temporary accommodations in other properties it manages. Meanwhile, a chronic labor shortage in the construction sector makes it unclear when the repairs will be finished.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has ordered Leopalace21 to adequately fix the defective apartments, while calling on the firm to file a report on the causes of the faulty construction and the measures it will take to prevent a recurrence of the problems. The authorities involved in ensuring the safety of buildings should go further and examine whether the current regime of inspecting the design and completion of buildings is sufficient to serve its intended purpose, including how defective construction, especially on such a large scale, can slip through the cracks.

To cover the expenses of repairing the defective apartments and the cost of the residents moving out of the properties, the company has booked a special loss of ¥43.4 billion for the April-December period of 2018, and expects a net loss of ¥38 billion to ¥40 billion for the full year to this March. But it should realize that such financial losses are only part of the damage incurred from the large-scale defective construction. Leopalace21 and all other parties responsible for building safety need to take seriously the disruption and anxiety that the faulty construction has caused the affected residents.

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