Building deemed safe after mistake made

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 05:00 24/11/2012

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A controversial Earthquake Commission (EQC) engineer judged a block of apartments safe after making a fundamental mistake about the construction of the building.

The Press last week published an investigation of the engineer who has done over 2000 assessments in Christchurch over recent years.

The investigation showed the engineer, regarded by EQC as world class, has generated numerous complaints to both EQC and the Institution of Professional Engineers (IPENZ).

Since last week further complaints about the engineer have emerged including one about an art deco block of 10 apartments in the inner city.

Tenants remained in the block until June last year when engineers acting on behalf of the owner, Liz Harris, and her insurance company reported the building was no longer safe for habitation due to earthquake damage.

Harris had to find alternative accommodation for her tenants. The EQC engineer first inspected the building in August last year and, after noticing core samples drilled out for the installation of heat pumps, "confirmed that the solid walls of the building are of concrete construction".

He recommended the repair comprise of injection of epoxy resin into cracks and the application of new paint and plaster where required.

After another inspection the next month the engineer reported: "I consider the building is safe and habitable as it stands without any restrictions on the use of the ten flats".

In October he re-inspected the apartment block with engineers from the Stream Group and Engineering Design Consultants who had recommended the initial evacuation. During the inspection it became clear the building's structural walls were actually of unreinforced masonry.

In a memo to EQC he admitted his earlier mistake and described the external walls as "concrete and brickwork".

"This building is as safe and habitable now as it was prior to the recent series of earthquakes," he reported.

He confirmed his view in a letter to Harris who, around Christmas last year, re-tenanted the apartments.

However, earlier this year EQC commissioned another assessment of the building by Auckland engineering firm Batchelar McDougall Consulting (BMC), at Harris' request.

In June the firm reported:

The building was not safe for habitation because, although well built, it had been structurally weakened by the earthquakes.

All exterior and interior dividing walls were brickwork.

Floor slopes typically exceeded Department of Building and Housing indicator criterions.

Geotechnical testing was required.

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Harris had three weeks to evacuate the building.

This week she told The Press the EQC engineer might well have put her tenants in danger and his refusal to back down meant her insurance claim was in limbo.

She had already lost a year of rents from the building.

In meetings with the EQC engineer and other engineers she was struck by how the EQC engineer wouldn't listen and "just talked them down".

The engineer did not respond but EQC, through a spokesman, said EQC inspected buildings to identify damage and whether a building was safe was a question for the owner and local authority.

"We note that the engineer's report to EQC says he was explicitly asked by the owner if the building should be evacuated as a result of the recent earthquakes."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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