Gong Badak: The last straw?

By David Teoh (The Malaysian Insider)

Good design is often viewed as a costly luxury, but that is simply not true because bad design will cost us more.

Use Gong Badak as a euphemism if you must.

The collapse of the roof of Gong Badak stadium has opened the building industry to public scrutiny. Who should be blamed when a tragedy of this magnitude occurs?

That the roof finally collapsed implies that the structure was under fatigue from the day it was completed. Collapse was imminent. Whether it occurred a day, a month, or a year after practical completion is irrelevant. So instead of June 2, 2009, what if that fateful moment had been the night of May 10, 2008 at the opening of the 12th Malaysia Games (Sukma) officiated by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong himself!

I shudder at the thought.

Public buildings should not be ticking time bombs posing mortal risk to the tax-paying public, let alone their sovereign!

No doubt, this recent debacle has placed pressure on the government to find a scapegoat. The responses have been according to the script with the Works Minister Datuk Shaziman Abu Mansor, and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin calling for a probe into the cause of the roof collapse and calling for stricter rules in appointing building consultants and contractors for public sector projects. The DPM even asked if the building was still under warranty. Soon a legal battle to determine liability will ensue and by the time a verdict is passed the tragedy will be long forgotten. But what about the government? Isn’t it to blame as well for this mess?

Gong Badak is only the most recent tragedy resulting from years of apathy towards good building design. It does not take an expert to assess how poorly designed many of our public buildings are. So many buildings today are badly built, difficult to maintain and often unsuitable to the requirements of its users. In light of all this, should we keep thinking that “lowest cost” always equates to “best value”?

This tragedy is an opportunity for us to reflect on government policy towards the commissioning and awarding of public building contracts. Has it brought us the right outcomes? If not, how should we go about fixing it?

The government owes a duty of care to the public to ensure best practice standards are followed in providing high-quality public buildings. Blaming the consultants and the contractor for the structural failure of the Gong Badak stadium does not absolve the government from its responsibility. The truth remains: it picked the wrong team in the first place!

In the case of the Gong Badak stadium, the role of the Terengganu State Government as the promoter and client was to ensure best practice in the selection of the lead designer, the consultant team and the main contractor. Good teams have a much better chance of delivering thoughtful and well executed public buildings.

So, what should we consider as best practice methodology in selecting a team?

Internationally, the norm for a project of this scale would be to have a two-stage open competition for the project. Due to the very public nature of the building, it would have also been best practice for the government to appoint a panel of independent jurors made up of local and international consultants to convene and assess the competition entries.

The first stage of the competition would seek to assess the capability of the design team and its ability to work together. The second stage would be to assess the design merits of the competing proposals and each team’s ability to deliver the project to time and budget constraints. Once the project is awarded by the decision of the independent jury, the winning design becomes the basis for an open tender to contractors with the capability of carrying out such work.

Open competitions for major projects bring many benefits. Firstly, it encourages an environment of fierce competition where a high-quality scheme would be selected among the best consultants in the field. Secondly, it encourages public discourse on taxpayer-funded buildings. The greater the public engagement, the more the public shares a sense of ownership in the completed outcome — the story of the Sydney Opera House comes to mind. Thirdly, the government would be perceived as being both transparent in its processes and progressive in the promotion of cultural advancement through good design.

Ensuring best practice in integrating design and construction delivers better value for money as well as better buildings, particularly when attention is paid to the full costs of a building over its whole lifetime. e.g. a building with bad solar orientation would cost more to cool by air-conditioning over a period of many years, eventually costing more in energy ringgit than it did to construct it. Badly designed buildings are often torn down or refurbished after a short life-span, thus costing more to the taxpayers.

Best practice and good design outcomes will thrive when the environment from a national policy level is conducive. That is why the government, as the sole promoter and client of major public projects, should champion a culture of excellence in design. The first step would be for the government to hold international standard design competitions and conduct open tenders to ensure that only the best design consultants and the most competent contractor deliver the next major project.

David Teoh is a graduate architect and researcher based in Melbourne, Australia.


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