PW Investigation: Finding cracks in the façade

SnaggingAs its real estate sector expands, the UAE needs to deal with pressing challenges such as preventing major defects in buildings that are potentially dangerous l Shutterstock

Building defects are inevitable as almost every building around the world will have one at some point in time, but snagging expert Douglas Ralph says it is more important to know how big and how many those flaws are. While building standards are getting better with increasingly stringent regulations in place, Ralph says the UAE has to deal with new challenges as its real estate landscape expands.

“Any time you have an emerging market you have the cowboys who come in looking to make the fast buck,” says Ralph, CEO of Snag and Inspect, Dubai’s first certified housing inspection company. He refers to opportunistic investors whose main objective is making a profit, without any concern for the sustainability or safety of their projects. He notes that such personalities have started to leave the UAE in search of other emerging markets, as tougher regulations come into place. But he warns their legacy still remains.

Having conducted inspections across the GCC, Ralph says the region has a large number of buildings with concerning defects, including those that require costly repair work and some that are even potentially dangerous.

Common defects

“As an inspection company we see a large variety of problems, from simple waterproofing issues within the physical apartment, the shower not being properly waterproofed, to drainage problems where they’ve been connected wrongly, [causing] leaks through pipes into the apartments below.”

Ralph says a high-end Dubai luxury apartment building had recently experienced a foul smell issue. His company conducted an initial inspection and discovered six broken sewer lines across just two apartments.

“It’s going to be a very large concern as there are over 400 apartments in the building,” he says. “Finding that many breaks in two randomly picked samples leads you to believe there are a lot more problems there.”

Other buildings have issues with tanking, where poor waterproofing of the superstructure of the building leads to water regressing into the basement. This can be an issue residents are not even aware of. “Quite a few buildings in Dubai do have groundwater leaking into the sub-basement areas because of poor waterproofing,” says Ralph.

In one Marina building, Ralph discovered a river of water flowing through the ground floor from the basement level. Poor maintenance can lead to rusting water pipes, which then erode causing holes and leaks. The only fix in such a situation is to replace the entire piping system, which could cost up to Dh2 million in a big building, says Ralph.

Substandard fireproofing is another hazard in many buildings, Ralph says, one that could have potentially disastrous consequences.

“Fireproofing is a federal code regulation. Unfortunately we do find poor-quality workmanship, where the fire code has not been followed as accurately as it should have been. This could lead to major damage or smoke inhalation in other areas of the building.”

Aside from preventing fire, Ralph says effective fireproofing also contains the damage by not allowing it to travel through the building. “When the construction work is done poorly, [and there is no proper] compartmentalisation, toxic fumes could spread and lead to loss of life.”

Similarly, Ralph and his team see numerous examples of faulty electrical wiring. “There’s one large defect that is a common occurrence,” he says. “It has the potential to be a safety problem but it’s a practice that’s standardly used by all contractors because it’s fast, simple and easy to use.”

He explains buildings are placed under unnecessary risk when instead of using a covered, insulated junction box to connect wires, a number of Dubai contractors commonly use a rudimentary connector called a plastic splice block, which is illegal in Dubai. “[This can cause] fire or melt the insulation on the wire, which is there for safety,” he says.

Subpar subcontracting

A great proportion of the problems, Ralph says, come at the contracting or subcontracting stage. He points out though that the superstructures of high-rise buildings are solidly built with a focus on stability.

“The majority of the superstructures are overdesigned and they’re very well done,” he says. “The superstructure is an item that’s easily controlled, it’s a single focus. [The problems start] when you get hundreds of people in a building doing the sub-pieces. With all these activities going on at once, consultants aren’t able to keep up and check everything, so they fall behind and you get defects.”

With multiple trades working across multiple floors at any one time, mistakes can happen, especially with developers always looking to find ways to cut cost. This can even lead to the employment of under-skilled or overworked consultants, Ralph says.

“The way the government has written regulations, the responsibility falls on the consultant. The government just comes in and does a review of the paperwork and a cursory walk through. It doesn’t have the staff to manage that many properties.”

Ralph says there are a number of consultants who are not as skilled as they should be, and this can be a cause of major problems.

“They have a degree, but it could be from a school that’s not as strong as it should be, so the individual’s knowledge isn’t as strong as it should be,” he says.

Issues also arise when it is the contractor who hires the consultant. “It’s a conflict of interest. The consultant’s not going to buck the system too far because he wants his job, and you have the developer pushing [to] keep my costs down,” Ralph says.


Ralph says the Real Estate Regulatory Agency is making strides towards implementing more regulations to control the way buildings are built. “The government has learned a way to manage those regulations.”

Another big step forward is the potential introduction of a mandatory building inspection procedure, tentatively approved by the Dubai Executive Council, which would ensure inspections are done before handover.

Ralph says it is also up to tenants and owners to know what they are getting into before purchasing or renting a place. “Inspection means protection,” he says. “For a small amount of money you have a certified company [to] help protect your health and investment.”

He adds: “[For example] mould is everywhere, you breathe it every day. But large quantities of it [and] certain types of it can be very dangerous to young children and elderly people or people with lung problems.”

This is where professional inspections can prove a very wise investment, Ralph says, for as little as Dh1.4 per square foot.

Source: Amanda Fisher, Special to Property Weekly


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