Surveyor calls for EQC audit
Adrian Cowie has a deeply disturbing take on the Earthquake Commission's assessments of Christchurch houses. He is a highly qualified registered surveyor who has developed a speciality in assessing earthquake damaged homes. MARTIN VAN BEYNEN reports.
If Adrian Cowie is right, many Christchurch homeowners have been deprived of having their homes properly repaired or perhaps rebuilt.
A specialist in earthquake damage after assessing Christchurch homes and commercial premises since the September 2010 earthquake, the 48-year-old registered surveyor says assessments on floor levels performed by the Earthquake Commission (EQC) are inaccurate and those by other so-called experts not much better. That's if the levels are done at all.
He says Canterbury people will pay for the mistakes for decades to come and already sales are falling through. Fond of medical analogies, he calls it a "consistent misdiagnosis" by EQC and insurance companies.
He currently has 15 jobs on his books which show EQC has not measured floor levels or measured them wrongly, he says.
Extrapolate that across the city and you have a major problem.
Cowie has received plenty of attention in both the mainstream and social media and has been dismissed by some as a zealot. But he is used as a devastating expert witness in High Court cases and few would argue with the quality of his work.
His claims go to the heart of the EQC assessment process. A floor that is out of level indicates foundation damage which usually means expensive repairs or a rebuild ahead. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake.
Most Christchurch home owners will be familiar with EQC estimators using a laser device to check levels.
Cowie, who uses eight different measuring devices, says the people using the laser are not qualified to measure floor levels properly and the results are often meaningless.
"If they don't measure up the whole house correctly and don't take levels accurately allowing for floor coverings, you can't calculate the slope. They go from room to room but are not getting a picture of the overall house. That is where they take any levels at all and in a lot of cases they don't. I've got one job where I took 250 readings and EQC took two."
A lack of damage is not an indication that floor levels haven't changed and he has worked on premises which seemed unscathed but on closer examination were alarmingly uneven.
"If there is no perceptible damage you get someone who is not an expert and they think it's fine."
Another instrument used frequently is called a Zip level which works on atmospheric pressure. Cowie says it is a fine tool but very dangerous in the wrong hands.
"A lot of things can go wrong. You have to calibrate it and then check it (the calibration) throughout the survey."
In a recent case he did a full survey of an average, two storey house in Burwood. It took him six hours to do the inside and then he had to check how much the ground underneath the house had sunk.
"Two EQC guys came out. One was an engineer. They had an hour and a half to do a full structural assessment and the floor level survey. They said it was no problem. That's the difference."
He's not sure the EQC staff would have discovered the house had "dished" in the middle by 85mm if he hadn't told them.
More disturbing was the potential land damage his measurements showed.
"I said to them the whole building has sunk by about 300mm so before you do any repair strategy the building has to be lifted up in accordance with the policy to the new flood level. They said that was not their problem. It was a land claim issue.
Two months later the land claim people arrive. I meet them and I say to them the building has sunk and needs to be lifted. They say that is not a land claim because we can't see the land under the building. It's not our problem."
He mentions another disturbing recent example in which $400,000 to $500,000 is at stake.
His clients were adamant their house had moved due to the earthquakes and EQC was equally adamant no damage had occurred. An EQC supervisor rechecked the house and agreed the floor was 40mm out but said the drop was pre- existing.
Fortunately the owner had a detailed pre-earthquake survey of the house and Cowie was able to show that although some slumping was pre-existing, floor levels had fallen by 40mm in the earthquakes.
He doesn't agree that his Rolls Royce assessments would be too expensive and take too long in most cases.
He won't discuss the cost of his surveys because they vary so much. An average house survey can take up to a week, a day to take readings and then four days working on the data and preparing documentation.
An accurate indisputable assessment would save money and resources and avoid the delays caused by disputes, he says.
As an example he cites a client's house in St Martins where EQC had done no floor levels but where he found the levels were out by 82mm.
"I saved EQC a lot of money because the repairs would have had to be done again," says Cowie who believes an independent service set up to do assessments would be a good idea.
But even if EQC agreed that he was right, wouldn't there be a huge shortage of properly qualified staff to do the sort of assessments he was advocating?
Cowie says plenty of qualified staff are available but maybe not in Christchurch. He agrees it would be easy to go overboard but suggests the more thorough surveys start in areas with land damage. He says he doesn't have all the answers but hopes some new guidelines and methodology can be established as a first step.
Looking at the bigger picture, Cowie says EQC is too keen to globalise the task it faces.
"They are saying this is a huge job. Let's get in fast and get out. But each house is someone's life savings. For a lot of people it's the only equity they have. Each has to be assessed as an individual house."
He no longer works for insurance companies out of principle because, in his view, they have an agenda to minimise payouts.
He recalls an outrageous recent incident where he surveyed a damaged commercial building only to have his data discarded by the insurance company which then used an unqualified building maintenance company staff member to take new levels.
Cowie says he's definitely not being outspoken to get more work.
"I've got enough work for years. I don't advertise. I've just got existing clients and it's all referrals.
"But from a social side so many people are getting their houses misdiagnosed. Something needs to be said. I've seen so many people in Christchurch who can't afford a surveyor, that can't afford to get advice and are getting wrong assessments by EQC. I think it's my duty to say these people need a voice. They haven't got the knowledge. I have. I have to say something."
He wonders why more professional people are not protesting, "but you have to stand up with facts and I have the facts".
"It's not too late. There are so many people not even close to being settled; if they haven't assessed properties properly they have to put it right. Someone should do an audit of EQC and the first thing they should do is have a look at EQC's survey information and structural assessments."
New Zealand Institute of Surveyors vice-president Jeff Needham says the institute has looked at Cowie's arguments and is canvassing other Canterbury members to get their views.
"Adrian has taken a strong position and we are not sure how prevalent his view is," he said.
Cowie's cases could be the tip of the iceberg but they could also be the worst cases.
"We are advocating that when floor levels indicate damage a registered surveyor is used to undertake the assessment or supervise it."
Cowie was doing "high end" work and it was not practical to do week-long assessments like the ones Cowie performed on possibly damaged homes. Not enough people with Cowie's skills are available, he says.
The institute met with EQC experts in Christchurch last week to discuss its measuring methodology and processes and would be coming up with a more formal submission in coming weeks. It was also suggesting an audit of a selection of Christchurch cases to check EQC's approach, he says.
The commission says it uses properly qualified staff to do assessments and complies with Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment guidelines.
Reid Stiven, EQC Canterbury Home Repair Manager, says EQC is sometimes required to identify whether any unevenness in floor levels are due to earthquake damage or was pre-existing.
"Most New Zealand houses have some degree of unevenness in floor levels. A survey will tell you what the levels are but tell you nothing about how they got that way. Measuring floor levels alone tell you nothing about whether any unevenness is due to earthquake. If fittings remain level but the floor is uneven, then this almost certainly pre- dates the earthquakes. If doors are closing properly or if there is no sign of stress on the walls or skirting boards fit properly, then unevenness is unlikely to be due to earthquake."
Cowie says a comprehensive floor level survey combined with an engineering assessment can distinguish earthquake damage from pre-existing defects.
"It becomes pretty straightforward."