On April 15, 2017 a new multi-million dollar investment was unveiled in Guyana, uniquely labelled as both “state-of-the-art” in terms of the technology involved, and “first of its kind” indicating its singular presence in Guyana and the Caribbean. The KSM Investments, Inc. Concrete Products Factory Opening was attended by Minister of Business, Dominic Gaskin, who delivered the feature address to the attendees.
What sets this investment apart from many others is that its products are set to fill a real gap that exists in the construction sector, and that is the access to high quality concrete blocks for residential, commercial and national buildings.
In March 2012, the Guyana National Bureau of Standards launched new National Building Codes that were supposed to regularise the construction industry, specifying minimum standards to ensure the safety of buildings in Guyana. However, from the outset it seemed that enforcement of these new building codes would not be immediate, since then Housing Minister, Irfaan Ali was quoted as acknowledging at the time that “The institutional mechanism is currently being established through which the codes will be enforced.”
At the time, the completed sections of the building codes were: enforcement; fire, safety, use and occupancy; electrical; plumbing; use of Guyanese hardwood in construction; concrete and block masonry; structural steel; high rise buildings; foundations and excavations and the design and construction of septic tanks and associated secondary treatment and disposal systems.
To date there seem to be no enforcement mechanisms in place for the policing of the work of aberrant contractors and domestic builders. Indeed, even government projects have suffered failures that might have been averted had there been a functioning “institutional mechanism” for ensuring that the standards of the building codes already defined are adhered to by all categories of builders.
In his address, Mr Mahadeo Panchu, the investor and Managing Director of the company, referenced a very low bar or standard for concrete based building materials being present in the construction sector, “Guyanese have grown accustomed to using extremely poor quality handmade blocks and low quality machine made blocks in the construction of buildings…this very low bar, which has been set by the construction sector, has terribly damaged the sector and restricted its growth and modernisation.”
Indeed all of modern civilisation is founded on the construction of a robust, durable and dependable system of physical infrastructure, including private and public buildings, roads and other structures. Guyana is noted for wasting resources on poorly executed constructions which require numerous repairs and other fixes. Insofar as these issues are caused by use of poor building materials and similar breaches of the building codes that have been developed so far, then this wastage of financial and other resources is a direct result of a lack of enforcement capability by the Guyana National Bureau of Standards and other oversight agencies.
Insofar as available and cost effective quality building materials are not readily available, then cheap and substandard substitutes are very likely to flood the market, but this does not diminish the government’s responsibility to ensure structures are built to international standards of safety. There have been several building collapses over the years with deadly consequences internationally, and investigations afterwards have pointed to shoddy practices by the builders as the primary reasons for the disasters.
With this new investment that boasts international standard concrete products being produced right here in Guyana, by a Guyanese company employing Guyanese workers, utilising a plant which is the first of its kind in Guyana and the Caribbean, this investment becomes a basis for national pride at the innovation being shown in our local manufacturing sector. It also provides government and the GNBS with the opportunity to implement enforcement strategies with regard to the building codes for “concrete block and masonry” at the bare minimum.
Just as Guyana’s buildings, roadways and other structures have proven particularly vulnerable to poor construction practices and low quality building materials over the years, our buildings have also shown a marked vulnerability to fires. The Divisional Officer of the Guyana Fire Service, Mr Compton Sparman has called for fire safety regulations to be established within the national building codes with respect to fire safety systems and structural issues as well. Noting that over 1,000 buildings went up in flames in 2015 and alluding to the ever elusive issue of enforcement, he posited, “I think it is time… the building code is established to protect ourselves. The laws are there for us to adhere to and when you break the law you are punished.”
In other countries with a full set of functioning building codes, concrete blocks are also subjected to testing to establish a “fire rating” or “fire resistant capacity” of each block. This is the direction in which we need to proceed as a country if we are to make any measurable and sustainable progress at all in our overall development, and if we are to cut down on the wastage of resources that occurs through substandard work or via losses from fires.
It is not known what the annual value of the resources wasted through sub-standard construction practices might be. It might also be a useful endeavour to calculate the national losses to the economy brought about by fires each year. There have been many voices raised over the years in support of the establishment and enforcement of national building codes, but this process has been moving at a very slow pace.
With this private sector investment of KSM and Mr Panchu coming on-stream the government can immediately achieve many benefits out of this innovation in the manufacturing sector. For one, it can immediately raise the bar on all construction projects in Guyana, whether commercial, residential or done by the state itself in conjunction with the GNBS. This will immediately reduce wastage and make financial resources available for other uses. As a value added project, it has the potential to save on the utilization of scarce foreign exchange resources by reducing imports of similar products.
The private sector may indeed be the engine of growth but government must be a pro-active facilitator and must quickly rise to this challenge.