Last week, young Kyrique Boyce stepped onto a reinforced concrete well cover, as others had probably done many times before. But this time, the well cover collapsed, and he fell approximately 30 m (100 ft) to the bottom. Within hours, he would step into eternity.
Like most well covers across Barbados, it was unsafe. However, since people have walked and played on them for many years, they reasonably assume that they are safe. They are not. Just before a slab collapses, there may be no visible cracks on the top surface, but the edges and/or the hidden underside may be cracked with exposed and corroding reinforcement.
There are two important components of structural design. The first is to design the structure to be strong enough to accommodate all the loads that are expected to impact it. A well cover is expected to be intentionally walked and jumped on. If it bounds a carpark or driveway, then it may be accidentally driven on. If it was not designed to accommodate a truck, then while it may not collapse if driven on, it may be significantly weakened.
The second important component of structural design is durability. A high durable structure should maintain its strength with minimal maintenance. A low durable structure needs excessive maintenance to maintain its strength.
Well covers should be highly durable, requiring minimal maintenance. This can be achieved by ensuring that: the slab thickness is not less than 125 mm (5”); the side and bottom protective concrete cover to the steel reinforcement should be 40 mm (1.5”); and the concrete should be properly vibrated and cured.
Well covers are normally approximately 100 mm (4”) thick. The additional 25 mm (1”) thickness of concrete to improve the durability costs approximately $30. The benefits of spending an additional $30 on each well are obvious.
The well cover that Kyrique fell through could easily have taken his weight in the past. However, it was not strong enough when he made that fateful last step. While yesterday’s strength may be relied on tomorrow for high durable structures, the promise of yesterday’s strength should not be relied on for low durable structures.
All parents should use Kyrique’s tragic loss of life to warn their children to never walk on well covers. However, the great construction safety risk for Barbados is not its vulnerable well covers, but its vulnerable houses.
We should be reminded that during the Haiti earthquake in 2010, a reported 300,000 persons were entombed in masonry structures that were built almost as badly as we have built in Barbados for the past 25 years. Like in Haiti, almost every house constructed in Barbados after 1995 lacks the life-saving shear walls that cost all of $0.00 to install during construction.
Like the reported 300,000 unfortunate Haitians before 2010, most of us are unaware that we are living in tombs. We have awoken so many mornings with the walls still standing that we have become oblivious to the fatal risks. Worse is that we have convinced ourselves that this level of unacceptably high risk is normal and unchangeable, which demonstrates our lack of care for the safety of the other members of our households.
Barbados’ vulnerable housing stock is a national disgrace. It is intentionally sustained because, to my knowledge, Barbados has chosen to be the only country on this planet that offers its residents no relevant building guidance for the construction of houses.
I severely criticised the last DLP administration for this lunatic situation. Their shameless response was to ignore all warnings and then offer this baton of stupidity to the BLP. Rather than reject it, the BLP administration is carrying this baton with the same expertise as the last administration. It is time to throw away the stupid baton and start caring about households, rather than pursue the dangerous policy of waiting for the foreseen tragic event, and then begging for international aid.
Grenville Phillips II is a Chartered Structural Engineer and President of Solutions Barbados. He can be reached at [email protected]