Structural DistressFew would forget the brouhaha over the 2,000-square feet “underground palace” illegally built by former chief secretary Henry Tang. Like many, May Chan was surprised to find out from media reports the next day she too has fallen victim: Anyone who has replaced a fire door to the kitchen with a less fire-resistant sliding door is a violator.

“I did that simply for aesthetic reasons,” says Chan, 45, the mother of two and the chief designer for the family’s 500 square-foot flat in Kowloon Tong 10 years ago. “The other day we were pointing the finger at Henry Tang. I can’t believe I own an illegal structure like he does.”

Chan is obviously far from alone. A flurry of weeks-long media investigations into illegal structures has not only thrown shade on some of Hong Kong’s top movers and shakers, but also put people into a panic. From ex-chief executive Donald Tsang to Henry Tang, illegal structures are once again rearing their heads: the city’s new CE and surveyor CY Leung, two ministers and two executive council members have been caught up in the drama.

In reality, illegal structures are two-a-penny in a city where space is money. It’s not surprising Hong Kong residents crammed into shoeboxes are letting their creative juices flow just to make a little more liveable space: balconies-turned-bedrooms, storerooms dragged out of basements, modified walls and staircases. And the distribution of illegal structures is not location-specific: whether it’s in affluent Mid-Levels or depressed Sham Shui Po, a subdivided flat or a tycoon’s villa.

So what is an illegal structure? In Hong Kong, all buildings are constructed according to the approved plans issued by the building authorities. Illegal structures, officially known as unauthorised building works, are those that aren’t included in these plans, according to Phyllis KY Kwong & Associates. In other words, any add-ons or modifications to the original building plan without consent can risk a violation.

The authorities have been determined in their citywide crackdown. Former development bureau chief Carrie Lam, now chief secretary, has taken a hard line against illegal structures. “If we back down today and do not enforce the law, this will be a blow to the rule of law — one of the core values of Hong Kong,” she told reporters.

After a 10-year large-scale campaign removing over 400,000 illegal structures of immediate danger — mostly extended balconies, large canopies and rooftop houses in urban areas — the Buildings Department is turning its eyes toward the New Territories, where illegal structures are still rampant.

However, even some experts find these regulations too complicated, and to a certain extent, outdated, since they were written a half-century ago. “Frankly speaking, I can’t tell right away whether Donald Tsang’s case is an illegal structure or not,” says Vincent Ho, chairman of the building surveying division of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors. “The Buildings Department has the final decision — not us.”

To regulate minor works in urban buildings, authorities rolled out the so-called minor-works control system in December 2010. On the list are 118 types of minor works that require different levels of scrutiny. A rather confusing example is building supporting frames for air-conditioners, which require implementation by registered contractors and monitoring by architects, but similar installations such as drying racks that do not. “These regulations are far too complex for the public to understand, unless you have time to find it out case-by-case,” Ho says.

Another example is building the now-popular open kitchen. According to the Buildings Ordinance, removing a fire door to the kitchen is considered a modification of the original building plan and thus a violation of the law. “But what if more and more people are switching to induction stoves? Simply following the ordinance becomes impractical,” says Ho, who reiterates the spirit of the ordinance is intended to ensure a building’s structural safety and hygiene, not to create public fear or traps for the ignorant.

It’s estimated there are 400,000 illegal structures around town, though they are generally no imminent danger. Experts, including Ho, agree the city has tighter building laws than other countries. Those classified as “illegal structures” in Hong Kong might only be seen as owners’ showing off their creativity in Mainland China and Taiwan. “Stringent laws should prevent tragic accidents from happening, but they could, at the same time, lead to over-control and fear,” Ho adds.

In Hong Kong, anyone who builds illegal structures without prior approval will typically be slapped with a fine up to $400,000 and a maximum sentence of two years’ jail according to the Buildings Ordinance. Those who buy an apartment with such modifications also run the risk of being ordered to restore the flat to its original state.

Although it’s clearly developed into more of a public relations war between political blocs, angry protestors argue such illegal works are the cynical manifestation of the extravagant lifestyles that some Hong Kong politicians seem to have. Moneywise, these owners enjoy extra space and evade rates: real estate tax is based on a property’s rateable value affected by size and location.

Nevertheless, Ho is worried the somewhat frenzied media attention could lead to more conflicts and stringent enforcement by authorities. “It’s a bit overwhelming now,” Ho notes. “Perhaps what the public needs is clearer guidelines [for] tackling illegal structures.”

Feeling uncertain as to what to do next, Chan, like the other anxious homeowners with illegal structures, can’t help but think of the phrase that speaks to many Hongkongers. “I just wanted to plan a comfy place for my family,” commented Lisa Kuo, Henry Tang’s wife, who took full responsibility for the scandal. “I greatly regret that I did it without considering the consequences.”

Finishes Chan with a sigh, “Ah …a comfy place. How hard it can be.”