The demolition man
Thomas Wong, managing director of YSK2 Engineering, describes the demolition discipline as a "3D" job. "Dangerous, dirty and demanding - so as you can expect, it is not a popular career, especially among young people," he says.
Because it is labelled an unpleasant job, Wong says the sector has a hard time recruiting, despite the demand for demolition projects. "Young people have the ambition of building state-of-the-art architecture. I don't think anyone grows up wanting to be in demolition," he says.
The general perception of demolition may be less than positive, but Wong chose it because he understands that one man's junk can be another man's treasure.
"I was trained as a structural engineer and had worked on several construction projects before I chose to specialise in demolition," he explains. "Back in the late '80s, friends who were in engineering told me that there were very few engineers in demolition. But I believed that it could be an opportunity for me, so I founded my own firm specialising in demolition."
In many professions, specialisation is the key to success. Focusing fully on the demolition discipline, Wong has built a reputation for being able to handle projects involving a high degree of difficulty, and his firm has become one of the most respected demolition contractors in Hong Kong.
"I have an abundance of experience doing demolition in crowded areas," he says. "I demolished the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Central and have done projects in Lan Kwai Fong. The latest challenge is the demolition of Sunning Plaza in Causeway Bay."
Safety and environmental protection standards for demolition engineers keep rising, and so Wong needs to be on top of his game to cope with the new requirements. "The standards of environmental control for reducing noise and dust are getting higher. It is the engineer's job to come up with solutions to meet those standards. Scaffolding has to be erected to contain dust, and we need to transport the debris away safely," he says.
While the use of explosives to demolish buildings is common in many countries, they are seldom used in Hong Kong due to the high density of buildings. "It is extremely difficult to get approval from the Environmental Department to use explosives for demolition," Wong says. "The problem is that dust will impact the surroundings greatly since Hong Kong is such a densely populated place. Due to environmental concerns, although engineers are equipped with the skills to use explosives in demolition, they seldom do so. It is not a common practice on the mainland either."
Professor Choy Kin-kuen, immediate past president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, says local contractors seldom work on mainland projects because demolition is a highly professional sector. "Different places have their standards. It is complicated for [demolition] engineers to work across the border," he says.
Facing a shortage of talent, Wong's solution is to take up fewer projects. "As a responsible contractor, I have to do whatever possible to avoid mistakes. I would rather do less than do it wrong," he says.