The Damascus governorate’s Directorate of Planning and Urbanisation is in charge of granting special permits for reinforcement and partial reconstruction of licensed constructed buildings within zoned areas of the capital. These permits may be used to renovate, re-clad, modernise or rectify prior construction errors in buildings. However, these permits cannot be granted for buildings in the Old City of Damascus, where prior approval from the Department of Antiquities is required.
For example, the permits are granted in the following cases: when the structure of a building is damaged due to additional unstudied loads, such as from installing other features on external surfaces. This can also include extra weight from water cisterns and fuel tanks for heating and natural factors such as rainwater or sewage leakage. In these and other cases, when re-fixing the home, the engineer may decide to reinforce any columns and build metal structural casings around them. Property owners must obtain a reinforcement or partial reconstruction permit for this.
After the February 06 earthquake, there has been an increased demand for these permits due to buildings across Damascus that partially collapsed or were damaged. However, the Damascus governorate required residents of some of these buildings to reinforce them at their own expense, especially in the New Al-Sham Suburb project area.
Applicants must submit the following documents to obtain a reinforcement or partial reconstruction permit:
- A permit request obtained from the Licensing Department office;
- A real estate certificate issued by the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs, including the property’s subdivision number, location on the city zoning map, building specifications and the names of the owner or joint ownership shares;
- A document showing the ifraz, or subdivision, of the property to be reinforced, issued by the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs. This is a technical plan showing the property’s shape and boundaries.;
- A document showing the zoning plan issued by the Damascus governorate and specifying the property’s location within that plan;
- A current survey displaying the complete property descriptions, dimensions and any modifications to the property, including previous violations of the construction code. This survey is to be issued by an architect or civil engineer.;
- A structural plan detailing how the building was constructed, including any columns, foundations and walls, as well as the load on each of these elements. A structural engineer issues this plan.;
- Detailed plans, including floorplans, showing the quantity of the materials needed for reinforcement and reconstruction. These plans are to be prepared by a consulting structural engineer licensed by the Engineers’ Syndicate. They must include tables listing the quantities of materials for the reinforcement.;
- A police report, issued by the police station responsible for the area in which the property is located. This report should indicate that a police patrol consisting of a head officer and several personnel visited the property’s location and inspected it. The report should also include the names of the patrol members, their ranks, residents’ names, personal details and the names of any eyewitnesses. Also specified are the property details, the patrol’s observations about the general condition of the property and the locations of any partial or total collapses on some parts of the property. Finally, this report should include any complaints from neighbours and residents, if any.;
- A written promise from the applicant that they will not take advantage of the permit to build unlicensed construction;
- Consent from all the owners or permission from the judiciary.
There are three cases in which reconstruction is not allowed and where reinforcement of at-risk parts of the property is permitted:
- If the property is within an approved plan, such as a park or road;
- If the property has been expropriated. If this is the case, then the opinion of the expropriation office is required. This is considered a form of pressure by the governorate on owners of expropriated real estate to vacate their properties and demolish them for the benefit of the expropriating party;
- If the property is located within areas protected for agriculture.
Despite the importance of reinforcement, especially for buildings over five decades old, it is clear from the above conditions that the Damascus governorate has strict requirements for granting reinforcement and partial reconstruction permits. This strictness on the governorate’s part could lead to delays in implementing regular maintenance of buildings, especially those with multiple storeys, and can prolong bureaucratic procedures–which becomes an issue if there are unexpected natural disasters like earthquakes. On the other hand, undertaking reinforcement promptly can help prevent buildings from collapsing and protect residents.
Meanwhile, reinforcement permits are often used for unlicensed construction, such as putting water tanks on rooftops, installing elevators or building protrusions. Without any effective monitoring mechanism, the written promise not to use these permits for such construction is meaningless. Damascus municipalities often turn a blind eye to unlicensed construction when the violators have a reinforcement permit. For example, one building owner used their permit to dig and construct a basement for their building in a wealthy neighbourhood of the capital. Instead of reinforcing the building as the permit called for, this owner put the entire building at risk of future collapse.
Further, the governorate’s requirement that all the property’s owners consent to the permit can delay the issuance of permits, thereby exposing buildings to structural risk. Notably, a demolition permit requires the consent of just three-quarters of the property owners, which can deprive the remaining one-quarter of the owners of their rights even if the demolished building was not at risk of collapse.
In cases of reinforcement, the consent of all the property owners is required, even if they do not reside in the building. This means non-resident owners can object to the reinforcement work for financial reasons unrelated to any risks that threaten the building’s structural safety or the lives of its residents. In such cases, it is rare to turn to the judiciary because of the lengthy litigation periods required, delayed decisions and the possibility of appeal. Residents, therefore, usually settle these issues directly with the objecting party, often through illegal financial agreements, until that party agrees to the reinforcement.
For example, in one wealthy Damascus neighbourhood, a property owner wanted to reinforce their commercial property, which occupied the ground floor of a multi-storey residential building. When he tried to obtain written consent from the building occupants so that he could get the reinforcement permit, one of them objected. This person only ended up agreeing to the reinforcement work after the permit applicant promised to re-clad their apartment for free.