At the University we’re used to seeing a new construction project start or finish every week. In my 21 years of coming to Ann Arbor, I can’t recall a time when there wasn’t something being renovated or built. Yet the one thing that I have never questioned is the safety of the buildings being erected. I guess we take for granted the care that goes into the design and construction of our buildings. Unfortunately, China cannot have the same faith in its structures.

China is currently one of the world’s fastest growing countries. According to a Nov. 10 Time magazine article, China accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world’s steel and concrete consumption. China certainly needs these materials in its efforts to construct about 21.5-billion square feet of new property annually. But this incredible amount of construction has come at the cost of workmanship. Poorly constructed buildings and neglected building codes are becoming a cause for concern in the booming country.

Two weeks ago, tragedy struck the city of Shanghai when a building burned down, killing 53 people and sending another 70 people to the hospital. The fire was attributed to nylon netting that was illegally used to prevent construction equipment and debris from falling onto the street. The flammable material was set ablaze by unlicensed welders working on the building. This isn’t the first example of dodgy enforcement of regulations leading too accidents. Last year, a newly-constructed apartment building in Shanghai tipped over because it was built atop unstable ground. Recent earthquakes have also brought into question the stability of many buildings in China.

Part of the reason behind the oversight of proper safety techniques comes from China’s accelerated effort to make buildings sustainable and energy efficient. There has been a recent push to go green quickly in the booming nation and that has come at the cost of taking the proper precautions to make sure buildings are up to code during and after construction processes.

With the collapse of faith in Chinese buildings, the question looms of how to fix this problem. The answer seems simple enough — more stringent enforcement of building codes — but this is easier said than done in a country that builds such an incredible amount. The magnitude of the situation is all the more reason for China to fix its structural problems. With more than 1.3 billion people in the country, China must be diligent in its efforts to clean up its act and avoid risking more lives.

In many countries, civil engineers are held responsible for the buildings that they design and construct. A collapsed building due to an error in planning on the part of the civil engineer in the United States can result in a jail sentence. China is among those countries that holds engineers and contractors accountable for their buildings, but the prospect of jail doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on the rashness of their construction. Contractors must be forced somehow to slow down their construction. The best way to do this may be to have other companies inspect other buildings and enforce safety codes.

China should have no problem forcing construction companies to submit to constant surveillance of their progress. Such surveillance would force companies to stop cutting corners and focus on the safety of their buildings at all stages of the construction process. Failure to prioritize safety would result in the company’s time and money being spent to fix the mistakes later detected by a third-party inspection agency. If China doesn’t see it fit to have strict inspectors monitor construction companies, it could turn to the U.S. for help. Our nation — which once constructed cities and buildings at a maddening pace — has insight that could help the Chinese make their transition into the future a safe one. The U.S. also has some of the best civil engineers in the world who could aid Chinese construction companies in implementing better building codes and safer practices.

Whatever China is going to do about its current crisis, it needs to do so quickly. Its leniency in safety laws is reflected in its recent problems. Chinese construction contractors have and will continue to neglect security measures if no action is taken. I’m not saying that the contractors have no regard for the lives of others, but with no guidance or standards from the Chinese government, they are overlooking little risks — like a safety net made of an incredibly flammable material — in favor of quick results. If China wants to avoid further loss of life and embarrassment, the state of its buildings must be addressed promptly.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu.

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