Court action on 'shonky' steel mesh creates pressure for government inquiry
SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: More than 100 home-owners have joined a class action against steel building mesh suppliers, as a Stuff investigation reveals widespread concern about builders' cost-cutting.
Adina Thorn, the lawyer heading the proposed court case, is this weekend calling for a government inquiry into dodgy mesh. The questions should be, "what has gone wrong, why, and recommend how to fix it," she said. "Experts suggest a new testing regime be introduced for steel – perhaps changes to the standards, perhaps government audits on steel manufacturers and suppliers."
The 10-week investigation has identified three key problems:
- Unqualified tradesmen who just can't count: they under-quote to get the job, measure badly, and cut corners;
- Cheap, substandard steel mesh for reinforcing concrete slabs, some imported from China and Malaysia;
- Materials being bought on overseas websites like Ali Baba for a fraction of their price at New Zealand hardware wholesalers and retailers – and without any of the quality certification.
One lower North Island home owner, who has joined Thorn's class action, is infuriated her $700,000 dream home no longer feels like hers because she has "no idea" what it's really made of. "I don't know what the implications of this steel business will be – our whole life savings are tied up in this house."
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Jackie, a teacher and mother of two, didn't want her last name used because she was anxious her house "would be labelled shoddy".
"It's been tainted because we have absolutely no idea what's in it. It doesn't feel like our own. We were building a quality house and absolutely would not have put in inferior steel," she said.
"We were literally putting the mesh in at the time when we saw on the news that it could be dodgy. It makes you wonder what's the value of any testing certificate."
Thorn says ductile steel reinforcing mesh, sometimes referred to as welded wire fabric, is typically used as reinforcement in concrete floor slabs. Two months ago, the Government announced it would toughen up the Building Code on 500E mesh testing requirements in response to quality issues
One of the biggest players, Steel & Tube, has acknowledged "oversights" in the certification of steel mesh it supplied. The Commerce Commission has investigated three further suppliers.
Steel & Tube did not reply to email or calls this week.
But in a leaked letter, Steel & Tube chief executive Dave Taylor expresses confidence to shareholders that the company can stare down the court action. "We believe Steel & Tube's seismic mesh is compliant, and therefore there can be no claim."
He says the company has talked to the Insurance Council, which has indicated that any home-owners whose houses have been built with sub-standard mesh in the past four years shouldn't be unduly concerned about their insurance coverage.
The company's steel has also been used in pile casings in the new $450 million Huntly bypass on the Waikato Expressway. Civil contractor Fulton Hogan commissioned tests after discovering issues when it was building the massive infrastructure project for the NZ Transport Agency.
In the leaked letter, Taylor says: "This was a specific project-related issue, which Steel & Tube has resolved with the joint venture."
The Sunday Star-Times inquiry has only reopened concerns about the quality of cheap Chinese steel imports – steel that is at the centre of a proposed inquiry by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Chinese diplomats sparked a furious row when they threatened trade penalties against New Zealand dairy, kiwifruit and wool exports, unless authorities here turned a blind eye to local steel industry concerns.
Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith says he's not convinced there is a significant problem in the building sector.
"But we must be vigilant and I keep an ear to the ground," he told Stuff this weekend. "The risk of poor quality is greater when the industry is booming. People desperate to get a tradesman end up with a substandard one."
"It will always be a performance-based building code, that's not changing. But we are tightening it, for example testing requirements for steel mesh."
As for Jackie and her partner, they built their designer home from scratch, aiming for an energy efficient landmark. She wanted a place to play with her grandson.
"We were so excited about building this house, it was a dream come true. But actually it's just been a total nightmare," she said.
"I'm worried about the other products. The plumbing, the nails, the glass. How can we know we've actually got what we paid for? New Zealand should be better than this. We should be able to trust that our products are the real deal.
"Now I just feel so vulnerable. In retrospect I wish we'd spent the money on other things – overseas holidays with the whole family, perhaps."
- Sunday Star Times