These high-rise buildings must not compromise sea defences

These high-rise buildings must not compromise sea defences

Dear Editor,

It is now an open secret that Guyana is on the cusp of enormous development and progress. But the integrity of structures, protection of the natural environment and the promotion of public health must be crucial determinants at every stage of the planning and the executing processes. Almost every day, the media report on investment proposals of billions of dollars, to government, from local and global corporations, in different sectors of the economy. One category of proposals that has stirred my interest is the construction of high-rise buildings including global and internationally-branded hotels. This, in my view, should be applauded because with those brands come direct and indirect employment and related benefits to local people and their communities.

That, notwithstanding, I am unable to imagine a perfect view of this vision of where we are heading as a nation without thinking about the environment, public health and safety, particularly as they relate to the construction of high-rise structures in the City. Just to be clear, I am not writing as an engineer but from an observational perspective shaped by my many years of interaction and experience, at different levels, with various aspects of city administration.

Georgetown, which is comprised of 66 districts, settles at 4 feet below the normal high tide and an additional 2 feet below spring tide. It is protected by a seawall. Essentially, this fragile structure protects the city and, in fact, the coastline, where there are many settlements and communities, from the incursion of the Atlantic Ocean.

One of my immediate concerns, as a citizen, is the security of the integrity of foundations of structures being built, in the city but especially, along the sea front and the effects of those structures on the sea defence and allied things. In particular, pile driving and the kind of piles driven in that area. For example, if instead of using wood, developers use concrete piles, which is made up of concrete and steel then what can be the consequences if, after many years, sea water (salt water) seeps into those piles and corrodes the steel. Naturally, it would weaken the foundation and consequently, compromise the integrity of such structures. Or what could happen if there is sea rise, at a rate of between 10 and 30 inches, by 2100, as the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anticipates. Or what can happen after those structures fully settled after one year to the foundation of sea defences. I am sure that, those developers, [both local and international] who have hired qualified technical and professional specialists must have properly considered this and related concerns. But, I am afraid, there are some developers, who, in an effort to cut costs, take a simple approach to such highly technical matters, by hiring ordinary contractors, many of whom have no experience in constructing high- rise structures. This is dangerous. Particularly in light of reports of the characteristics of the structure of the foundation of the city and the probability of it sinking as contained in an “Accomplishment Report”, by a JICA Senior Volunteer, 2016. It is true that many traces of subsidence can be seen in the nation’s capital. And there are two possible reasons for this: consolidation settlement of soft clay, which is one of the characteristics of the foundation of Georgetown; the other is the pumping up of ground water; ground water is the main source water for domestic use in the city. In certain sections, one can see public and council roads higher than private houses. And some sections flood more easily than others.

This is precisely why, the conceptualization of a secondary city on the Soesdyke/Linden Highway as proposed by the government is a good idea. Going forward, the authorities would need to move people to higher ground; it is the sensible thing to do. But even that has to be carefully planned because it will be developed in different environmental and infrastructural contexts with very different challenges.

Understanding the aforementioned facts, it is important that developers engage competent architects, who can design energy smart structures/buildings that take into account  wind pattern, wind speed, wind direction, and efficient use of energy etc.

The other thing is that structures should be used for the purpose for which they were built, in the first place, because there are health and safety considerations. A structure built to be used as a bond or warehouse should not be used as a store, for example. If that is done then there would be certainly challenges to meet ventilation, lighting, sanitation and other public health and fire prevention standards. These are critical points that should not be overlooked or dismissed, by developers. There are prime examples of apparently failed foundations of high-rise buildings, in the city. If one looks carefully, in different sections of the city, Regent Street, Cummings Street, Oronoque Street, one will easily notice (even to the untrained eye) quite a few high-rise buildings tilted on one side or the other at different degrees; such buildings have enormous implications on the overall health of the city. Perhaps, there is need for the establishment of a structural and design division with appropriate technologies, within the City Engineer’s Department. Perhaps, too, there is need for a complete review of the city building codes and by- laws to meet international standards.

Finally, the central signal from all that is happening around us, here, in Guyana, is the need to change. I don’t think that we are likely to enter into this new and unprecedented dawn of prosperity pulling behind us the old dusty and obsolete systems of the past even though embedded in some of those systems are some core principles. There must be a national awakening to the new economic, social and environmental realties.

Yours faithfully,

Royston King

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