High-rise danger

MORE and more high-rise residential buildings are being built in the 12 cities and many municipalities in Malaysia. This is to cater to the rapid increase in population both in the cities and municipalities.

Housing developers, with the advice and support of engineers, architects and town planners, are building taller residential buildings owing to the scarcity of land and high prices of landed properties.

Furthermore, living in high-rise residential buildings is interesting, especially those that provide magnificent views from the balconies.

But are our high-rise buildings liveable and more importantly, safe?

With the increasing number of high-rise buildings, developers, town planners, architects and engineers must ensure that the buildings conform to all the required building control guidelines, fire regulations, and health and safety standards.

Unlike living in bungalows or terrace houses, a fire in a high-rise building is more dangerous. The occupants of high-rise buildings will find it difficult to quickly get out of their units.

The scenes from television on the recent huge fire that engulfed the Grenfell Tower, London, were scary and devastating.

The fire is believed to have started from the fourth floor of the apartment block, but it spread so rapidly that it affected all the other floors, irrespective of whether they were occupied or not.

Scenes of the raging fire and thick-black smoke covering the 24-storey tower block shocked not only the people in the United Kingdom but also other parts of the world.

Many observers were reminded of the 1974 disaster movie, The Towering Inferno, about the world's tallest building engulfed by fire.

As of June 18, four days after the fire incident, some 58 people are either dead, presumed dead or missing. The recovery work has started, but could take weeks to finish.

It is also useful to note that there were very helpful people in the vicinity of the apartment block. The most heart-warming episode was the successful act of a man who managed to get hold of a baby thrown down from the 9th floor. It is not known if the mother who threw the baby was able to get out of the inferno.

Many Malaysians have experienced sadness when disasters occurred. We, especially the developers, town planners, engineers and architects, should not forget the collapse of Block 1 of the three 12-storey residential blocks of the Highland Towers in 1993.

Three people were rescued alive on the first day. There were 48 fatalities. The retaining walls and the drainage system were not only poorly designed but also lacked maintenance. The residents of Block 2 and 3 were evacuated. To this day, the two blocks stand empty.

The three blocks were built on a steep hill-slope in Selangor. The main cause of the collapsed blocks could be explained by major landslide after more than 10 days of monsoon rain. But it was also fair to blame the developers, town planners, engineers and architects who were involved in building the apartments on a precarious piece of land.

In view of the mushrooming of high-rise buildings in many towns and cities, it is important that local authorities that approve applications to build high-rise buildings must make sure the approved projects comply fully with regulations on safety features. There should be no cutting of corners.

Developers with their teams of engineers and architects should always place emphasis on the importance of sound, safe and ethical engineering standards. They must ensure that there are proper fire safety and evacuation procedures in all their high-rise projects.

Buildings must be designed in such a way that they allow firefighters to battle the blaze and residents to vacate via smoke-free and fire-free safety zones and staircases in the event of a fire.

In Malaysia, all high-rise buildings built after 1984 have to conform with the safety standards related to fire and the safety of the residents. The Uniform Building By-Laws 1984 is the 1976 version enacted after the fire at the Campbell Complex, a 4-storey shopping podium and 15-storey office block on April 8, 1976.

Apart from building designs, there should be adequate fire-fighting equipment. Examples are fire-resistant doors, CCTV cameras, sprinkler systems, protected corridors and lobbies that allow occupants to evacuate safely when there is a fire.

All these features are to prevent fires, extinguish fires and give warning to the occupants. All parties, be they occupants, security guards and maintenance operators must be familiar with the necessary safety measures in case of fire.

So far, high-rise buildings in Malaysia have maintained a good safety record.

But it is also important that the people who manage the apartments, with the assistance of the security guards, must take the trouble to remind the occupants to take part in fire fighting and evacuation drills.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban planning and housing. Comments: letters@ thesundaily.com