By Alex Liu
Hong Kong, 12 June 2023: Recent media coverage of the potentially dangerous renovation of a flat in Lohas Park has underscored the need for property owners to be fully aware of their legal obligations regarding structural alterations in private buildings. It is also worth stressing the heavy penalties for non-compliance, punishments that become even more severe if the works are considered likely to cause risk of injury.
The matter came to light when a video circulated online showing the interior of the renovated home, arousing suspicion among viewers that part of a load-bearing wall had been removed. The Buildings Department was alerted and officers conducted an inspection of the unit together with the owner, interior designer and staff of the property management company.
The inspectors found a new doorway, 215cm high and 72cm wide, had been cut into a 20cm-thick structural wall between the living room and a bedroom. After examining, as well, the units on the floors above and below, they concluded there was no danger to the overall building structure. The inspectors issued a statutory order under the Buildings Ordinance (Cap 123) (“BO”) compelling the owner to:
- Appoint an Authorised Person (“AP”) to submit a remedial proposal, including an assessment of the overall effect on the building’s structure and outline of proposed remedial works.
- Obtain approval from the Buildings Department before the commencement of such remedial works.
The Buildings Department confirmed it would follow up to ensure compliance with the statutory order and conduct a thorough investigation into the incident. Depending on the outcome, it would “take appropriate punitive action under the BO, including instigating prosecution”. In the meantime, the owner arranged for a contractor to install temporary supports in the doorway.
In her subsequent media briefings, Director of Buildings Clarice Yu said a preliminary assessment showed the illegal doorway accounted for 6% of the load-bearing wall and 1% of that of the whole floor, adding there was no risk to the overall building structure. She said the owner would be required to start remedial works within 15 days and complete them within 30.
She also conceded the government would only know about illegal modifications if a complaint was laid because it had to balance privacy protection involving individual premises. She promised her department would enhance public education and publicity.
The BO states any person wishing to carry out works, including alterations and additions, in a private building – except those that are exempted under section 41(3) of the BO or which come under the Minor Works Control System – should appoint an AP to submit plans to the Buildings Department for approval and await consent before commencing such works. In the Lohas Park incident, the removal of part of the structural wall was neither exempted nor minor and was therefore classed as unauthorised building works (“UBWs”). We have previously written about UBWs here and here.
To be clear, it is the responsibility of owners to keep their buildings free of UBWs. Anyone intending to carry out renovations should consult building professionals for advice and, where necessary, apply for approval and consent from the Buildings Department. Building professionals and contractors are also obliged to examine any approved plans, observe the relevant requirements under the BO and ascertain whether prior approval should be obtained in order to ensure safety of the building and its occupants.
Beyond the unambiguous provisions of the BO, there are other ramifications surrounding UBWs in a private building. In the Lohas Park case, residents have lamented a possible drop in the value of their homes as a result of the adverse publicity. There has been talk of a “psychological impact” among future buyers.
It is worth stressing again the penalties for carrying out building works without prior approval: a maximum fine of $400,000 and two years’ imprisonment, rising to $1 million and three years if the works cause, or are considered likely to cause, risk of injury to persons or damage to property. Failure to comply with a statutory order is liable to a fine of up to $200,000 with a further penalty of $20,000 for each day the offence continues.
The Lohas Park furore demonstrates that in a densely populated city where the vast majority of residents live in housing blocks, the need for strict safety regulations is obvious and it follows that the requirement for compliance is absolute. If in doubt, citizens are strongly advised to seek professional advice. Here at BC&C we have considerable experience in property ownership and building management issues and are ready to help.
Alex Liu is Managing Partner of BC&C. He was Chairman of the Appeal Tribunal Panel (Buildings Ordinance) for nine years until 2018 and a frequent legal advisor on the TVB documentary series A Property a Day. His key areas of practice include commercial and corporate litigation, investigations by governmental bodies, and insolvency and debt restructuring. He can be contacted at email@example.com.