Sometimes two decisions, made separately by different people but trying to apply the same rules, come out with disturbingly different results.

Consider two announcements which both came out last week, about the aftermath of unexpected collapses of part of buildings. One of these concerned the collapse of one wall of the Police Married Inspectors Quarters Building, which is part of the old Central Police Station. In fact it is among the oldest parts; construction started in 1862. The wall collapsed on May 29 last year.

The collapsed Central Police Station.

The other case which came to fruition at the same time concerned the roof of the Chan Tai Ho Multi-purpose Hall, which is part of a sports centre at the City University. The whole roof fell down on May 28 last year. The hall was practically brand new.

Both these cases had been the subject of inquiries, the conclusions of which were in due course transmitted to the Department of Justice. And the department has decided, it announced last week, that the contractor who was in charge of the married quarters work will be prosecuted. The first charge will be carrying out building works in a manner “likely to cause a risk of injury to any person.” On the other hand, the Justice people have decided that in the City U case “no prosecution was warranted”, according to the Standard.

And where, you wonder, is the justice in that? It may be that there are further nuances in the Married Quarters matter which will emerge in court. But on the face of it the contractor seems to have been rather unlucky. Dismantling or renovating a building more than 150 years old is always going to be tricky. There are probably no plans, and if there are plans the building will have been modified, and it was certainly not designed with a century and a half in mind.

Certainly the falling wall presented a risk of injury, but this was not entirely surprising. The risks involved were known and resulted in precautions not found in City U sports halls – the public were not admitted, workers were expected to wear hard hats, and so on.

The collapsed rooftop at City University.

The City U situation is rather different. The sports centre was in use while the university decided to add a lawn to the roof. Students played underneath it oblivious of the risk to which they were exposed. Indeed the university was in a sense lucky. If it had not been for the alertness and initiative of a security guard who organised an evacuation just in time, there would have been many people under the roof when it succumbed to Sir Isaac Newton’s great invention and tried to merge with the floor. If the roof had chosen another time to demote itself the casualties could have been in three figures.

Now I realise that there are regular arguments in educational circles about whether and if so to what extent universities are in loco parentis – whether they have parental or pastoral obligations as well as academic ones. But I think everyone who has discussed this would agree that universities do at least have an obligation to provide premises in which the roofs stay where roofs should be, rather than descending on the defenceless heads of their students.

See also: Construction industry figures fail to attend CityU roof collapse investigation

The inquiry into the City U roof collapse attributed it to three causes: “the screeding of the roof structure was thicker than the original design, laying of greenery cover on the roof, and localised water ponding on the greenery cover.” This is not very helpful. I presume that the heavier screeding was necessary to support the greenery. And once the lawn was up there it should not have been difficult to predict that it would get wet in wet weather and it would then weigh more than it did dry. In fact, to put the matter in plain English, it appears that the City U put a lawn on the roof without giving due consideration to whether the roof was strong enough to support it.

The collapsed City University rooftop after being cleared of debris.

City U has a Campus Development Office – duties “providing comprehensive services covering campus master planning and space allocation, capital and renovation projects, repair and maintenance of building services and estates of the entire campus.” The office has seven sections, supervising 17 “units” which in turn overlook 18 teams. Plenty of relevant talent there, then.

The university also has a Department of Physics and Materials Science, and a Division of Building Science and Technology. So the roof in question was surrounded by a great many people who knew, or should have known, that putting a roof on your garden is much easier than putting a garden on your roof.

It appears from the comments supplied by Edward Yiu, who represents the relevant functional constituency in Legco, that the decision not to prosecute arises from a “grey area as to whether green roofs are building works that require plans to be submitted to the Buildings Department.” But if this explains the Department of Justice’s action, or non-action, then the department is surely taking too legalistic a view of the matter.

Edward Yiu. File photo: Kenneth Leung, via Facebook.

The question is not whether sabotaging your own building requires the approval of the Buildings Department, but whether it is legal to turn a boring hall roof into an exciting death trap waiting for a Black rainstorm to spring it. If the government cannot be bothered to consider this, why are harmless householders all over Hong Kong routinely threatened with prosecution for minor changes to their buildings which – if they threaten anyone – threaten only themselves?

See also: Buildings Dept. prosecutes subcontractor after Central Police Station wall collapse

The City U students were lucky this time. Nobody was under the roof when it came down. But the way we prevent serious accidents is by taking narrow escapes seriously. I do not doubt that if a few students had been squashed the Department of Justice would have found a way to swing into action and prosecute someone for something. So as traditional school reports used to put it, they “could do better if they tried.”

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.