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Squarefoot Magazine 94 the collapse of to kwa wan

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These articles below can also be found in the 15 - 30 February 2010 issue of Square Foot magazine:


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The Collapse of To Kwa Wan


After the tragic incident, is it now the time to redevelop old buildings in Hong Kong?
talk of the town

| Text : Alex Frew McMillan | Photo : |



Those idle daydreams of To Kwa Wan’s residents turned into a nightmare at the end of January when the five-floor structure at Block J, 45 Ma Tau Wai Road collapsed in minutes. It killed at least four people and threw dozens more out on the street.

Construction workers renovating a shop on the ground floor came rushing out of the building moments before it came down around 1:45pm on Friday, January 29. And since the police investigation into the reasons for the collapse is still ongoing, the question is: did the workers remove a load-bearing wall, or walls, leaving little to keep the building standing on its feet? That’s the implication, although the forensic experts and investigators still have their say.

The government instantly ordered emergency inspections for all buildings that were built before 1960. The building in question was built in 1955.

It seems preposterous that a 55-year-old building can’t be expected to stay standing. In most European cities, many buildings are hundreds of years old. Even in the New World half a century is a very short lifespan for a structure. Should the Chrysler Building, completed in 1930, or the Empire State Building, which replaced the Chrysler as the world’s largest building when it was finished in 1931, be torn down because they’re past their best-before date? Only somewhere like Hong Kong, where new buildings are sometimes destroyed without even being occupied to make way for more profitable projects, would a building that’s in its sixth decade be considered ancient.

Hong Kong has had buildings collapse before. A devastating landslide hit Mid-Levels on June 18, 1972, carving a huge gash in the hillside. It sent a huge flow of mud and debris sluicing from a construction site down Po Shan Road and across Conduit Road, with some of the rubble reaching Kotewall Road some 270 meters down the slope. Two buildings were destroyed and 67 people died.

But there were natural causes behind that disaster – exceptionally heavy rain, and one of the buildings had already been weakened by a typhoon. Slopes are now monitored carefully, and building standards have improved. The To Kwa Wan collapse appears to be entirely man-made.

That’s very unusual. “I haven’t seen a similar case at all,” says Victor Lai, managing director of Centaline Surveyors. “If there was no illegal construction work being carried out, I think a concrete building will last for over 50 years, at least.”

In the collapsed buildings, all the balconies had been filled, renovations that are illegal but very common in Hong Kong. That loaded weight on the front. Many of the flats had been divided and subdivided again, raising the likelihood that structural walls – clearly marked on plans lodged with the Buildings Department – were knocked down.

One of the problems with old tenement buildings like the one that collapsed is that they hardly ever have owners’ committees to oversee communal building renovations or to maintain the structure. Most of the poor tenants are renting and have no ownership stake in the building.

No doubt, the Urban Renewal Authority will trumpet the collapse and use it as motivation to step up its programme of knocking down old buildings in unfashionable parts of town and replacing them with luxury housing. Sadly, many of the displaced tenants will be unlikely to afford those new digs.

Banks, which had been getting better about loaning money on old buildings, may grow leery again. One thing is for sure: few structures stand the test of time in Hong Kong. Says Lai: “In Hong Kong, it’s a short cycle; most of the buildings will be redeveloped.”