Non-experts managing cost of construction in Nigeria, says Onashile

Obafemi Onashile is the President, Africa Association of Quantity Surveyors (AAQS) and Managing Partner at Consol Associates. Speaks on issues bordering on cost of construction in Nigeria and why there should be transformation in the industry, especially on health and safety matters.
Nigeria is said to have the highest construction cost in the world, that makes reduction in housing deficit slow, why is cost in Nigeria different from other African countries? What should government do to reduce cost of construction?
First, I believe there is a need to clarify and distinguish classes of constructions. Constructions come under two classes – building construction works and civil and infrastructure construction works. Housing or building construction costs in Nigeria is not the highest in the world. It is perhaps the construction costs of civil engineering and infrastructure such as highways and roads, bridges, railways, aviation runways and aprons, power plants and public water mains works that are excessively high when compared to similar construction costs in other countries.
From our in-depth research, the actual average costs of construction of typical single-family residential house with decent level of specifications in the United States is about $150/square feet, which is equivalent to about $1,560/square metres (house with hardwood structure and floor deck), while in United Kingdom similar building will cost about $1,800sq.m (house with concrete structure and deck).
In Nigeria, such a development costs about $880/sq.m only (with concrete structure and deck). We can summarise therefore, that housing construction cost in Nigeria is cheaper than in UK and US and currently at about 50 per cent cheaper.
However, within the Africa continent, I agree that cost of building construction in Nigeria is slightly higher than other countries but not too significantly. A similar single family residential house in Kenya costs about KES60,000/sq.m ($507/sq.m eq.). In Zambia, it’s about ZMW12,000 ($750/sq.m eq.), while in South Africa similar single family residential house costs R13,000/sq.m ( $780/sq.m). Based on these facts, I can state that the building construction costs though relatively higher in Nigeria are still comparable with other African countries.
However, we cannot confidently say the same for civil engineering and infrastructure construction costs in Nigeria. Again, based on research we have identified many reasons for the very high costs of such works, as highways and roads, bridges and power plants in Nigeria.
To ensure appropriate costing, firstly, the Federal and State governments should establish Directorate of Quantity Surveying in their Ministry of Works and Highways to ensure active and correct cost management of roads and other civil engineering constructions.
Non-costs experts, who are purely design professionals, are currently managing the costs of these works. It’s like asking the architects to manage the costs of multi-storey houses they have designed by themselves.
Design professionals (including engineers) should focus more on designing and creativity and allow costings to be done by the skillfully trained and seasoned cost experts (the quantity surveyors). Designers going to do post qualification one or two months “crash programmes” on costing can’t be the same as the trained and competently evaluated cost experts.
Secondly, government should insist and ensure that costing of civil engineering and infrastructure works are henceforth done according to global standards as prescribed by the International cost management standards (ICMS), a body, which has the Nigerian Institute of Quantity Surveyors (NIQS) as a formidable member.
Current documentations used for costing of civil engineering works in Nigeria called Bills of Engineering Measurements and Evaluations (BEME) regretfully, are not in accordance with any known global construction costing standards. They do not reflect good work description standards. They contain very ambiguous descriptions. Of course, pricing these amateur documents will not reflect regular and correct construction costs.
Thirdly, the quantity surveyors must set up ample cost data of different levels of cost models relevant for costing civil and infrastructure engineering works. To accurately predict and price construction costs even by cost experts, there is a need for collation of actual costs of previously completed projects, which we refer to as cost data.
The costs experts that have the knowledge to prepare the cost data are being prevented by the engineering designers from participating in the costing of these works. Nigeria’s civil engineering and infrastructure projects are being executed with avoidable monumental wastes of financial resources.
There was a proposal years ago for the establishment of a Construction Development Bank in Nigeria. Do you think that proposal is still valid now in the industry? What should be the government’s role?
Yes, the ultimate for effective construction delivery is having the construction development or funding bank with a large financial base to provide cheap and ready access, to financing projects by prospective developers and contractors.
However, recent industry experiences have shown that with availability of so much capital for development also comes wastefulness and sharp practices. Unqualified contractors and developers emerged overnight. Bankers turned developers because of their access to funds and there was so much indiscipline in the industry.
The government should ensure that laws stating rules, regulations and enforcement procedures at par with other developed nation’s construction industry are enacted.
The collapse of the 21-storey building in Ikoyi has called to question lack of health and safety measures on several construction sites in the country. What should be done?
Health and safety on construction sites is a serious matter as it concerns human lives, which are not replaceable. Many in the industry but few with a depth of thoughts have offered a lot of ideas about addressing the deficiencies in health and safety on sites.
Nigerian construction industry health and safety current standards were set in tandem with the British standards in 1973 under the Factories Act 1973, with the guiding framework principle of “compensation for accidents.” It worked on the principle that accidents can and will happen. When it does, victims must be compensated.
To ensure ability to compensate, there must be insurance policies taken. This is an obsolete and insensitive principle. Unfortunately, the later update of the Factories Act 1973 in Nigeria for instance, the Factories Act 2004 and the Employees compensation Act 2010 still operate the same obsolete “compensation principles.”
Globally, the framework principle of Health and Safety has changed from “compensation principle” to “Prevention and accountability principle.” The British changed and adopted the new principles through an Act of Parliament in 1986. Every industrialised country has adopted the prevention and accountability principle.
This principle prescribes the type and sizes of projects prone to significant safety issues, identifies those that have a duty to maintain safety of lives on construction projects, including the building owners and the state governors. The principle also determines the extent of care that should be implemented by “duty holders” to prevent accidents.
So, should there be an accident it becomes easy to hold the duty holders, including the building owners and state governors accountable as to how they carried out their duties and who failed the system and such can then be prosecuted. Our current Laws are deficient of this prevention and accountability principle and until amended, regrettably, building collapse will continue to happen.
This is why the NIQS, as one of the industry stakeholders has been canvassing for the transformation of the construction industry through the push for enactment of an Act that adopts the prevention and accountability principles for health and safety in the industry.
At a built environment congress in 1995 in Harare, Zimbabwe, quantity surveying delegates established AAQS to enhance its practicing in Africa. How has the association united national bodies to foster co-operative, intellectual, cultural, educational and scientific ties?
AAQS started with about five countries but has now grown to 18 African countries. The association is impacting professionals by offering a platform for attracting international participation to trainings and conferences, as well as sharing and disseminating knowledge and ideas on what each other national association is doing in their countries.
It has assisted some national QS associations to become standalone and be weaned off from their hitherto parent architectural association of their countries. Examples are the QS associations in Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda and The Gambia.
The association has helped in setting and benchmarking qualifications and practice standards to be at par with global standards. The association last year set up the AAQS graduate school, a pan Africa training school to assist in standardising and benchmarking the knowledge and also guide QS graduates in becoming professionally qualified in their own countries.
It is providing platforms for mentoring and leadership opportunities for young QSs and also female QSs to develop to full potentials.
The association is promoting the awareness of the existence of renowned quantity surveying firms in Africa, to international development funding organisations such as the Africa Development Bank (AfDB), the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank (WB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
By His grace, I currently lead the association as it’s eighth president, working with vibrant and illustrious QSs from other African countries in the executive committee of the association and our three-year mandate ends in October 2023.
Last year was a challenging period globally with the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for the construction industry. What were your members doing differently to re-engineer the economy in their countries and their expectations?
Our members, (the QSs) being the construction costs and contracts experts, waded carefully in advising on the re-commencement of many suspended construction projects to avoid project abandonment and investment/ employment losses.
They helped in negotiating and resolving tons of claims and disputes arising from statutory restriction of movements and commercial activities, including claims for temporary demobilisation and closure of sites, claims for complete contract review etc.
We took advantage of benefits of remote working from our homes. Our members promoted virtual meetings and interactions of construction stakeholders. Lastly, we encouraged the sharing of experiences from one country to the other through many webinars for trainings, which had participants from all over the globe.
We expect to see more flexibility in remote working by which many women of childbearing ages can retain their employments in our industry whilst nursing and not be sacked or forced to resign.
Remote working through the deployment of artificial intelligence on construction, for instance, drones to inspect and monitor construction sites.
As you know technology now rules the real estate and construction industry;how has quantity surveyors embraced technology and used it to benchmark best practices?
Quantity surveyors are embracing technology. Right from adopting technology in administering their offices, to utilising technology in performing their duties at their offices, and to deployment of technology to aid their duties on site.
The firms are now safely storing and retrieving project data from the cloud through technology, as well as
integrating more closely with their co-consultants/ design partners in use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) models to assess, measure, evaluate and cost the proposed development in 5-D to a higher level of accuracy and benefits to their clients.
QSs are now utilising digitally processed cost data that enhances consistency and accuracy of their estimates.
The continental body consists of over 20,000 highly skilled professionals, what are your strategies to deepen and widening the roots of AAQS structure in Africa and ensure sustainability of the profession?
The AAQS is the pan Africa umbrella body of all national institutes of quantity surveyors in the different countries of Africa. Our current strategy is to aim for a moderate growth of the association in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic uncertainties and constraints. Also, we moderate growth in terms membership, finance and infrastructure of the association.
Our action plans in pursuit of the strategy include the following amongst others: Take the awareness of the existence of our association to the Francophone and the Arabic countries in Africa, in order to attract the construction cost and contract managers in those countries to become a part of our association.
Creation of a register of renowned firms in Africa and help promote these firms internationally so they can receive fairer consideration for engagements by international funding organisations such as the Africa Development Bank (AfDB), Africa Finance Corporation (AFC), World Bank (WB), International Finance corporation (IFC) Emerging Africa infrastructure fund and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Embark on series of advocacy visits to pursue the registration of our association with identified continental/ global institutions to promote greater awareness of the existence of the profession in Africa; intensify funds mobilisation drive for the Association through appeals for donations, sponsorships, endowments and subventions.

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