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Sofia public inquiry | Architects call for building codes and super-regulator on construction

The president of the Chamber of Architects, the architectural profession’s self-regulating body, has described the system regulating the construction industry as “bad from beginning to end,” raising several points of concern.

Perit Andre Pizzuto was testifying in the public inquiry established after the tragic death of construction worker Jean Paul Sofia, who lost his life in a construction site collapse last year.

Pizzuto complained about bureaucracy and paperwork that “drives you to desperation” and that there were no national standards or codes for architects to follow.

“For example, what is the standard for a balcony railing? What stops it from giving way? Where are the regulations?”

“Is it time for a moratorium on future development until we put our house in order?” asked Ombudsman Joseph Zammit McKeon, who is chairing the inquiry board.

Pizzuto said the issue was a very controversial one. “A moratorium is on the somewhat extreme side of the spectrum. But there is an urgency, already expressed in a document we had published in 2007 – that’s how long it’s been felt… It is time to roll up our sleeves. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, the standards already exist.”

Pizzuto said said such was the Chamber’s frustration at the inaction that its council had to set standards for its members itself by introducing a code of practice, “instead of waiting for the BCA to decide, which might take 30 years.”

Pizzuto did not sugar-coat his replies. Asked about the recently-introduced role of Site Technical Officer, an engineer nominated by the contractor to ensure regulations and method statements are meticulously followed, the witness was refreshingly direct. “The STO is a stupid concept, to put it bluntly. The quicker they disappear, the better.”

And even though the regulations required a licensed mason to be present at construction sites, Pizzuto said that only a carpenter had been present at the site which claimed the life of Jean Paul Sofia.

“Let me tell you how ridiculous the situation is: the BCA only checks whether the documents are in place and that they are in the sequence stipulated in the legal notice. It doesn’t look at the structure. In Karl Azzopardi’s [former CEO of the BCA] day, they were looking at spelling too, rejecting applications for having spelling mistakes.”

Pizzuto stressed that architects should not be responsible to write out method statements. “In Canada an architect would lose his warrant if he wrote one. They should be written by contractors.”

Pizzuto said a super-authority should be made responsible for standards and codes, because many responsibilities were scattered across too many regulators: “What is the Malta Competition Authority doing regulating lifts? What is the MTA doing issuing fire regulations? Why is asbestos regulated by BCA?”

Pizzuto said the confusion that regulates building safety in and around a site, or the standards for constructions, had chased away architects who seek employment overseas. “The profession is in a very bad position... You go to work and all you do is fight. At a site you fight with the workers, at the office you fight with the authorities.”

Pizzuto said the Chamber was of the opinion that it should be the BCA that should have jurisdiction over every aspect of the industry.

Pizzuto said the Chamber was also hamstrung in investigating its own architect members when fatalities occur, due to barriers to access important information. “We write to the Attorney General asking for the acts of the inquiry, but we are only sent the conclusions, not the evidence. The conclusions deal with criminal offences, but we want to see if there is a breach of Article 15 of the Periti Act. Once charges are issued we lose all access to the acts because they become part of criminal proceedings.”

He said that in the Miriam Pace fatality, the courts had refused to grant the Chamber access to the inquiry file before the outcome of the entire process.

Lawyer Anthony Borg from the Office of the State Advocate asked about the effects of recent changes in the law.

“The most important thing we wanted to see was that there is a deterrent. The possibility of losing your licence,” Pizzuto replied. “With a deterrent there is already a difference, but it takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight. Our concern is that despite all the good will there is, there is still no clear explanation of how the deterrent is going to work in practice with respect to contractors. What is the punishment? Is it a warning, a suspension or the revocation of their licence?”

Pizzuto hailed the Periti Act, of 2022, as one of the most important reforms introduced in the past 40 years. “We have been fighting for it for 14 years. Several governments and ministers repeatedly pushed us aside. Its absence has held us back for so long that the profession would be different today, with respect to university courses and skills.”

BICC chairman testifies

Also testifying was Perit Charles Buhagiar, the chairman of the Building Industry Consulting Council (BICC) for the past 10 years and previously the minister who had set it up.

The council was a forum where industry stakeholders, amongst them estate agents, developers, contractors, the Chamber of Commerce, the Public Works Department, the Lands Authority, the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers, University, MCAST and unions discuss relevant issues.

But Buhagiar said Malta still lacked a coherent framework of laws and standards, Buhagiar said. He stressed the difference between planning and construction in defining the roles of the various authorities.

He agreed that skill cards should be introduced in the process of licencing building contractors. “We insist that the contractor must be trained and that this training is attested to by a licence… I believe that this is the direction we must be looking to. A third or more of the workforce are non-nationals. This will be difficult. What often happens is that inexperienced and non-expert workers are employed. The problem is who will enforce it?”