Two weeks after a fire gutted Ali Enterprise factory, killing 258 people trapped inside, the authorities have still not found its architect and industry officials now doubt he even exists, highlighting the shady way in which many building designs are approved in Karachi.
Inquires made by The Express Tribune to track him down have led to dead ends with both professional bodies - the Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners and the Institute of Architects Pakistan (IAP) - equally clueless.
The 6x4 feet blueprint of the factory says that Muhammad Qamar Uddin, with an architect’s licence number of A1-01-67, designed the building. His address is stated to be R-631, Sector 9, North Karachi.
PTCL record shows that a phone connection has been registered under the name of Qamar Uddin at the same home address. The number, however, is dead.
His licence number also appears to be forged. The real licence number registered with the IAP is A-29-67, the last number suggesting the year he started practicing. He is categorised as an associated member born on January 1, 1900. The IAP says it does not know who he is.
“This shows the state of affairs in this country,” said the chairperson of the Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners, Shama Usman. “Anyone can become a building expert. There is no system of checking the authenticity of an architect.”
The council is trying to find out whether Qamar Uddin is a registered member. “But the body was formed in 1984. And we only verify the university degrees of architects. There is every possibility his name was being used and he has since long passed away,” Usman speculated.
Over the years, the council has cancelled dozens of licences when they come for renewal because the children or relatives of the architects were using the name to lend credence to a building design.
These people are called ‘briefcase architects’, who put their name at the bottom corner of a design prepared by builders who want to skimp on cost, industry officials say.
“They are available everywhere these days,” said Adil Shabbir Kerai, the vice chairman of IAP. “Businessmen don’t hire big names in the industry because good architects don’t compromise on safety.”
The Sindh Industrial Trading Estate (Site) Limited, which is the final authority on building designs, is also unaware of architect Qamar Uddin. Site’s chief engineer Shabbir Khokhar says the blueprint for the factory was approved in 2004. “I wasn’t at the helm of affairs at that time. But I will blacklist this man once we find his real identity.”
None of the agencies investigating the incident have looked at the role of the architect so far. Experts maintain that a fair inquiry must also factor in whether the industrial building was designed in a way to tackle a fire and if it had sufficient emergency exits.
Influential businessmen easily have designs approved from Site, which does not have any system to check authenticity of the architects as evident from the mismatched licence number mentioned on the blueprint of the Ali Enterprises factory building.
Site’s one-page bylaws that govern construction of factories are completely silent on the safety features, says Khokhar. “It is the job of parliamentarians to amend building codes and make them elaborate,” he said, showing the 15 points of the bylaws, which specify basic requirements like the height of a wall, distance from the road and size of the main gate.
Once a design has been approved and the factory constructed, Site has no powers to check the premises. “Perhaps it’s time this is changed and we are given power to check the factories randomly,” Khokhar said.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2012.