The old National Insurance building on Fairchild Street is moving closer to demolition. Public opinion is split on whether the building is better demolished or rehabilitated. I would think that by the time a decision is made to demolish a building as significant as the old National Insurance structure that there has been a plethora of evidence to support the decision.
The discussion that is happening now is due to our continued lack of information for public consumption. The nostalgia for the building has not been met with information about the hazards of the building and the process for coming to this final decision. The communicative lag is not new to us. It is one of the challenges of the model of politics that we practice in Barbados.
For fear of the political ramifications, information is seen as better hidden. The way that media works, we get sound bytes given by ministers and other officials as parts of speeches but then there is very little research that offers more in-depth information. There is also no website of the Government that offers information on the status of government buildings or maintenance schedules, decommissions of public assets, so on a so forth.
I think especially with the sick buildings of Barbados, perhaps there is a view that withholding information could avoid legal or other liability. It seems to come down to what is politically more palatable in the context of how we are accustomed to viewing information and its dissemination. It is perceived as easier to decommission a building and demolish it without full disclosure.
I think a discussion about whether we can salvage the old National Insurance building now is far too late. After hearing the stories and experiences of individuals who worked in the building and persevered to be removed from it, I do not want to diminish their truth. What we have to do is to learn the broader lesson from the demolition of the building.
Sick building syndrome is something that is taking over a vast majority of Barbados’ commercial real estate. While the issues associated with government work spaces often become headlines due to the agitation of unions and news coverage, the issue is also a prominent one in private sector work spaces.
To my knowledge, there is no singular government department setting standards for maintenance of work spaces in Barbados. I believe that many of our buildings become unsafe over time because there are not minimum requirements for cleaning. Also, the question of how we earmark which lands for which type of buildings is an essential part of the puzzle.
How we have situated commercial space and which businesses we put next to each other, the traffic and air management are all areas, to my layman mind that we need to become stronger at planning. Another factor that I think we are not paying enough attention to is how we construct buildings based on our climate.
For example, what types of climates are the air conditioning systems that we use built for? Are there types of materials that pose greater levels of mould growth when temperatures rise significantly? Are we doing research for ourselves on how these systems that are largely built overseas perform here?
Designs for building have progressed far beyond the traditional materials and structures that were traditional. Much of the material used is imported. I wonder who is testing our unique environmental circumstances to ensure that the ways that materials are utilized provide the most conducive environments. This goes not only for the exterior structures of buildings but also the furnishings and fittings used in the buildings.
How we manage the asset from day to day is another area that deserves attention. I wonder how cleaners are trained to perform their tasks.
Do we have programmes that ensure that on the ground technicians and ancillary staff members are continuously brought up to date on health and safety changes and new regulations? Are we cleaning new and different buildings in the same ways and is that effective?
The only legacy that I can see the old National Insurance Building having at this juncture is for its demolition to be the starting point of us doing something differently about the way we manage commercial space in Barbados.
That can be the beginning of programmes to ensure that the health of workers is preserved through preventative mechanisms. Is that not the greatest metaphor of what the pillars of social security that spurred the national insurance scheme was meant to be?
Marsha Hinds is the President of the National Organisation of Women.