15 August 2007

Do Not Build Your Bridges from Chinese Steel

Chinese steel does not enjoy the best reputation among construction engineers. The recent collapse of a brand new bridge at Fenghuan in Hunan China, merely shines a more recent spotlight on a problem that is becoming a scandal--shoddy Chinese construction.
Part of the problem, he says, is China's desire to build infrastructure projects quickly, often to maintain economic growth.

...Mr Tao says another problem is that big construction projects are controlled by politicians in China, not engineers.

"These local officials like to see projects delivered on time - it makes them look good," he says.

There is also a lack of skilled foremen, who are vital if design ideas are to be turned into reality by often low-skilled workers.

Corruption is also an issue in the construction industry.

A local party secretary was executed following the collapse of a pedestrian bridge in Sichuan Province in 1999, leading to the deaths of 40 people.

It was discovered that the politician had accepted a bribe from a childhood friend in exchange for a bridge-building contract.

...Another problem, he says, is that many of China's 500,000 or so bridges were not built to withstand today's increasing traffic volumes.

"Many bridges were designed and built 20 years ago when designers did not predict the huge traffic flows today," he says.

The problems facing major construction projects in China in mirrored in smaller projects, such as housing developments.

One foreign architect working in Beijing says developers would rather use cheap, shoddy building materials rather than more durable, but expensive, products, even on high-end projects.

"Many buildings in Beijing will have to be torn down and rebuilt in 10 years or so because they've been built so badly," he says.

Here is more on the bridge collapse in Hunan.

Bridges can collapse anywhere, of course. But usually there is a reason for catastrophic failure of a structure. The recent collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota is still being investigated, and it will be over a year before the final report is in. But the Minnesota bridge was 40 years old this year, and had been found with cracks in some girders. Having been opened to traffic in 1967, it is likely that fatigue from age and possibly poor design contributed more to the collapse than faulty materials.

Other US bridge collapses occurred due to earthquake (SF/Oakland Bay Bridge and freeway), severe storms (Tacoma Narrows), ship collision (Tampa Bay), barge collision (I-40) etc.

Unfortunately for China, infrastructure problems are not limited to the construction and mining industries. The banking industry that underlies China's prosperity is potentially more rickety than most Chinese bridges and housing projects.

The corruption that causes such slipshod construction and organisation/oversight does not bode well for the future of China, as a possible regional or world hegemon. But China has a few decades to clean up its act before the US will be willing to hand over control--unless the US elects a long string of psychological neotenates to the presidency and congress.


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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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