Your Gateway to
Capital Intelligence
Home Opinion How to fix fire safety in Hong Kong’s ageing buildings

How to fix fire safety in Hong Kong’s ageing buildings

by Tunae

Some problems seem too big to solve, especially those that have been inherited from the past. Over a long period of time, buildings and structures that were once new start to deteriorate and require continuous upkeep. However, it’s impossible to tear down all the ageing buildings in dilapidated neighbourhoods and start afresh.

Meanwhile, the construction sector evolves and introduces new materials and standards; often, building codes also become more stringent to ensure users’ health and safety.

The result is that around the world, building owners and regulators face a cycle of playing catch-up. Given that it is practically impossible for some buildings to meet every new requirement, however, the authorities might only be able to ask that the best possible measures be implemented.

Here in Hong Kong, despite our government’s fiscal strength and our capable civil service, we have not been able to eliminate the problem of ageing buildings that have not complied with regulations. How many times have we walked into an old building without proper egress routes and functional fire doors, or with blocked stairways?

It often takes an accident to highlight the problem, and days of intense media coverage for the incident to become a wake-up call. The city’s leader, government department heads and legislators send a strong message, vowing to investigate the problem and get serious about amending related legislation.
In the case of the 60-year-old New Lucky House in Yau Ma Tei, five were killed and more than 40 injured in a tragic fire on the morning of April 10 that is suspected to have been caused by a discarded smouldering cigarette. Those who managed to escape said there were neither visible exit signs nor audible fire alarms; some fire doors did not stop the spread of smoke in one of the staircases. These should be basic fire safety measures in any building, new or old.

Lam Kin-kwan, commander of the Fire Services Department’s Kowloon South division, said each of the three staircases in New Lucky House could have led 100 people to safety, if compliant with fire safety standards and smoke-free. While the fire was an accident, the lack of safe exits was not.

Hong Kong fire kills 5, injures dozens in Kowloon commercial and residential building

But allow me to play Monday morning quarterback for a bit. It takes days for a registered inspector to conduct a site walk and report the safety maintenance that needs to be done. It takes about a month to order a fire-rated door that comes with a certificate of acceptance, several days to purchase exit signs and alarms off the shelf, and about a week or two for contractors to install all of the above.

Opinion Newsletter
Thought-provoking commentary and Op-ed content, curated daily by our world-class editorial team.
By submitting, you consent to receiving marketing emails from SCMP. If you don’t want these, tick here
By registering, you agree to ourT&CandPrivacy Policy

When the Buildings Department issues a statutory notice under the Mandatory Building Inspection Scheme or a fire safety direction, the owners’ corporation of a building has a year to make the necessary rectifications. Understandably, the owners’ corporation is given some breathing room as compliance involves more than the actual inspection and repairs; for example, a consultant has to be engaged and costs have to be figured out.

However, this is also where precious time is lost due to procedural matters. Worse, leniency might be taken advantage of and delay tactics applied to put off the deadline indefinitely. This is how the New Lucky House owners’ corporation was able to play a long game, changing inspectors and delaying rectification for about six years, after receiving a statutory notice in 2018. Similarly, the building owners also failed to comply with a fire safety direction and upgrade protection measures for 16 years.

Non-compliance with safety measures turns out to be a two-way street: while on one side, there are owners who do not follow official directions and take responsibility, on the other side, there are also oversights in enforcing the law and penalising the offenders. No matter how comprehensive and thorough codes and regulations are, if they are not enforced, they might as well not exist.

So is the Buildings Department or Fire Services Department to blame? It’s easy to point fingers, but at the same time we need to be realistic when the problem is too big to be easily solved.

Such a problem would need to be broken into smaller pieces, which are then tackled one by one.

Out of nearly 9,600 buildings incompliant with fire safety directions, one-fifth are located in Yau Tsim Mong district. Photo: Martin Chan
The Post reported that out of 9,578 buildings not compliant with fire safety directions, one-fifth – over 1,900 buildings – are located in Yau Tsim Mong district. Rather than tackle all 9,578 buildings, or even the over 1,900 in Yau Tsim Mong, at once, the departments could consider narrowing the scope of execution to block by block, or street by street.

Focus on one street at a time, and if any owners’ corporation does not comply, directly engage contractors to rectify the problem and then charge the owners’ corporation a high premium.

In this way, not only would the repairs be carried out effectively, the authorities would also be sending building owners the message that it is much more cost-effective to do the right thing themselves. As the Chinese saying goes, “Kill one to warn a hundred.”

We need to change the way we do things especially when the current method is clearly not working. Otherwise, we risk another deadly fire.

The news on the New Lucky House fire has quietened down. How many more wake-up calls does Hong Kong need to take action?

Dennis Lee is a Hong Kong-born, America-licensed architect with years of design experience in the US and China

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Are you sure want to unlock this post?
Unlock left : 0
Are you sure want to cancel subscription?