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Greed, not Tornadoes, to blame for damaged roofs

When a cyclone, a tornado or a hurricane hits, even quite well constructed buildings may suffer damage. New Orleans in the U.S. and Queensland in Australia are prominent recent examples. However, the heart-wrenching images in South Africa in the past weeks of schoolchildren working in the open because the roofs of their schools have been blown off are not as a result of winds of this nature but rather of shoddy and unacceptable building quality. This is the opinion of Dr Hennie de Clercq, executive director of the Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC).

“Roofs being blown off in this country are certainly not isolated incidents; people who are familiar with the building industry know that many roofs are damaged by wind each year, including those of houses, commercial buildings, factories and other buildings. Low cost houses are particularly susceptible and the excuse is typically that there was a ‘tornado’, or some other ‘act of God’.  Insurance companies normally seem to be quite happy with this explanation and, more often than not, pay out if the building was insured,” says de Clercq.

“But the reality is that there are precious few tornadoes and no cyclones of hurricanes in South Africa - on average less than one per year hits a built-up area. It is extremely rare for a wind strong enough to blow off well constructed roofs in this country.

“The fact is that it is entirely possible and economically feasible to build roofs that are strong enough to survive the winds that are typically encountered here,” he says.

He adds that there should not be more than one incident per year on average in the entire country of a roof being blown off by wind.

Why then is it that we have an epidemic of damaged roofs year after year? According to de Clercq this can be attributed to carelessness and sloppiness. “Carelessness is basically where the developers, be they in government or in the private sector, do not ensure that quality materials and compliant workmanship are specified, while sloppiness comes about through a lack of supervision resulting in poor workmanship and general decline in standards,” says de Clercq.

He says that greed is the root of the problem. "This is clearly apparent, firstly, through the willingness of those responsible to use substandard roof sheets, screws and other items used for fixing the sheets to the structure and secondly, through those responsible taking all kinds of shortcuts like, for example, appointing contractors who can’t do the job properly and not getting professional advice.”

De Clercq says that while most of the substandard material is imported, much of it is also produced by unscrupulous local companies. “Obviously the cheaper price of such material is an important purchase incentive, but it is certain that these inferior products are an important part of the cause of roofs dislodging in even milder winds, and, if they are not damaged by wind, then they will be damaged by people walking on them, or by rust after only a few years.”

How can building owners, property developers, government departments, architects and engineers ensure that this endemic roof problem comes to an end?

The SAISC recommends the following steps. Firstly, for any building bigger than a single dwelling an engineer should be appointed to take specific responsibility for all aspects of the roof, including the support structure. For houses, great care should be taken by all responsible in the specification of the roof structure.

Secondly, good quality material must be specified and used. Only roof sheets tested in accordance with SANS 10137 should be allowed.

Thirdly, only roofing contractors that have demonstrated the ability and preparedness to do professional and compliant work should be employed. Furthermore, there should be a system in place where these contractors are constantly checked to ensure they adhere to the specifications and to acceptable standards in general.

“The time has come to cease looking for external excuses and to understand that the solution to the problem is entirely in our own hands. As long as we do not accept responsibility for the pain and suffering caused by this substandard work, it will continue unabated. Following the above guidelines is what is required and, while this may require a little more effort from all those involved in the construction industry, the dividends reaped in the end will be more than worth it,” concluded de Clercq.

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