Vol. 4 Num 307 Fri. April 09, 2004  

The heart of the matter: ineffectual, ineffective and inadequate

In a high-rise building, commercial inclusive, the most important part is the locale that facilitates vertical circulation. That's obvious since verticality is one of the objectives of such a building. Generally referred to as the 'core', often used to structural advantage, it usually houses the elevators, stairs and lobby. Being central in location it very often also accommodates such other vital central services as toilets and fire fighting.

What then is a high-rise building? Taking cue from the Building Construction Rules 1996, popular as 'RAJUK rules' because of its executing authority in Dhaka, structures seven-stories and above could be bracketed as high-rise with elevator (popular as lift) having been made obligatory from that level. But, since the Rules have special clauses pertaining to setback for buildings 10-storied and higher, one is inclined to understand that in Bangladesh that possibly is the dividing line.

With reference to the core the Rules state that 'emergency exit', i.e. means of escape, must be separate from stair lobby and lift lobby. This is primarily where the core of high-rise buildings in Dhaka has failed. Most of the buildings have no intermediate space dividing the core from the useable space.

Contemporary buildings are mostly air-conditioned and that will make them more hazardous in a fire than a naturally ventilated building. A naturally-ventilated staircase is also better off. Also, to add to the threat, even when the building is centrally air-conditioned, the core is not pressurised mechanically to keep away smoke.

Albeit erroneously, whereas the Rules state that emergency exit must exist within 25 metres from any location on a floor, the very objective of this provision is defeated because a large number of core in Dhaka have the main stairs and that designated as 'emergency' adjacent to each other, within a few feet. In an emergency situation, if the lobby is under attack, both the staircases would be inoperative and no escape would be possible. In effect, all the staircases, and there can be more than two in a building, should as far apart as possible, or limited as per the dictate of design. The staircases should be of equal value, because in a fire one should be the alternate exit for the others.

To add further peril to the heart of the matter, some of these high-rise buildings now in operation in Dhaka, including several 15 to 20-stories high, have only one staircase; REPEAT, only ONE STAIRCASE. In at least one existing building the fire exit stair, would you believe, stops at the tenth floor. These are unacceptable from the public safety point of view. In any fire situation, such conditions would spell disaster and death for the regular occupants as well as visitors.

If after repeated fire accidents and deaths, garment factories in Bangladesh could be compelled to add an emergency staircase, there is time even now to motivate and compel these commercial building owners who have violated the law and put people's lives at risk to put in a second staircase (and even a third if need be) in their otherwise modern building.

In some high-rise buildings sprouting in the city, users have to approach the fire exit by crossing over the central core. This design fault is not acceptable as the core is likely to become the most vulnerable space in a fire situation.

In another flagrant disregard of design for fire safety almost all the high-rise buildings have the main stairs and the designated fire stairs going all the way down to the basement. This is but a grievous mistake, as stairs from upper floors MUST end at the exit floor (ground or plaza as the case may be) and a separate staircase must lead from the ground/plaza floor to the basement. Under the present situation escapees will end up in the basement and not being able to exit from the building cause severe hazard by backflow. Panic will set in with horrendous possibilities.

Some of these cores in Dhaka's high-rise buildings are devoid of any natural light and air, which would make the space extremely uncomfortable in the absence of artificial ventilation and light; and dangerous too in a fire if emergency lighting has not been catered for. Furthermore, with so much daylight available here, it is tantamount to ridiculing the contemporary concept of energy conservation, by opting for mechanical means, as often is unfortunately the case.

In designing such ineffectual core, the Architect of a building is not doing justice to his profession and shifting radically from his sworn social commitment. In allowing such ineffective core RAJUK is not doing its part in protecting its constitutional obligations. In erecting such inadequate core the building owner is posing a threat to the society, even if it be because of ignorance; therein lies the importance of the role of an Architect.

The just-graduated final year students of the Department of Architecture, BUET, concerned about violation of rules and safety factors carried out a study late last year on about fifty commercial buildings in Dhaka City that were ten stories or higher. In order to create awareness among Architects, Engineers and allied professionals, as well as building owners, the class arranged an exhibition of their findings at BUET.

Today we present some of the cases only as an attempt to build better understanding of the issue such that human lives can be saved during emergencies in the future. As they stand today, the heart of the matter, the core of a high-.rise building, is in a contemptible state. A disaster is looming. People will die.

Let us not wait for a tragedy to strike. Let not the unassuming users of high-rise buildings in Bangladesh fall prey to poor design and/or bad implementation, and shoddy operation and maintenance. Human life is one price we need not have to pay for modernisation.

The author is Professor, Dept of Architecture, BUET and Consultant to the Editor on Urban Issues, The Daily Star

Dr. Nizamuddin Ahmed, Architect, is Professor, Dept of Architecture, BUET.