Christchurch let down by engineers

00:01, Feb 13 2012

I used to think that if an engineer declares a building safe, it's safe.

But after seeing the damage caused on February 22 and reading media reports coming from the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission, my respect for engineers often wavers and some days collapses.

Too often in my opinion the quality and rigour building inspections before Feb 22 was decided by the thickness of the landlords' wallet, not the safety of the inhabitants.

Surely that's how we got "inspections" that didn't include an examination of the inside of buildings. Or, how we got "inspections" that didn't include a look at building plans and other documents that detailed known weaknesses.

This alleged slackness wasn't confined to the September 4-February 22 period. It stretches back decades. Think, for example, of the late changes made to the Hotel Grand Chancellor's design and unofficial upgrades made to the CTV building.

Among the alleged deficiencies were wonky shear walls, asymmetrical designs and weak concrete. These are the things engineers and builders need to get right.

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More to the point, more engineers needed to be in control of their own inspections. I imagine conversations should have gone like this:

Engineer: I can't possibly assess your building for such an appalling sum.

Landlord: I'm paying you; do what you're told

Engineers: You might be paying, but my ethical duty is owed to your tenants and the public.

Landlord: Then I'll find somebody who follows the Golden Rule.

Engineer: Good luck. IPENZ, the professional engineers' society, sets standards and not prices.  No ethical engineer could meet the standards at the price you will pay.

Landlord: Fine, I'll do nothing.

Engineer: Sir, I am obligated by ethics (and perhaps the law) to report your uninspected building to the relevant authorities.

Landlord:  Fine, We'll do it when I get back from the Gold Coast next month.

Engineer: No sir, we'll start today.

Actually, I'm certain conversations like this did happen after September, just not enough of them.

People will say nobody could have predicted the violence of February 22 and blaming engineers is scapegoating. Maybe, but I wager that the royal commission concludes that poor engineering contributed to some deaths. And perhaps many.

We're seeing better rigour from engineers these days of course. Buildings all over town and as far afield as Timaru and Golden Bay, have been closed for safety reasons.

Chunks of Merivale Mall were closed on the weekend, which is hardly surprising given the damage that was open to the world for months.

More of that please, engineers.

The Press