Christchurch let down by engineers

WILL HARVIE
Last updated 12:49 13/02/2012

merivale mallI 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.

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.

- © Fairfax NZ News

44 comments
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brandon   #1   01:22 pm Feb 13 2012

This sort of reporting does neither Will Harvie or The Press and favours in terms of credibility and only serves to undermine any good that is being done.

This report should be removed immediately as the writer clearly has not done his research and is simply looking at giving the engineering community a cheap shot with no right of reply.

The Press has done a fantastic job of reporting on all of these issues around the earthquakes and the CCC and I'm disappointed that they would lower their standards to that of the UK tabloid press.

Expendable2012   #2   01:34 pm Feb 13 2012

Firstly more understanding is needed for the engineers, they are now placed in positions where they are working in extreme and dangerous situations, they are not trained counsellors yet they have to give bad news to already traumatised people in many cases on a daily basis, they are overworked in many cases and have to balance the weight of many human lives lost if they get it wrong. Not all are bad eggs and in any occupation anywhere you get those whom do cut corners and are incompetent.

I was at Merivale Mall in the supermarket the night before it was closed down. Every time I entered that building since the September quakes I seriously questioned its integrity to keep surviving quakes, the damage was for all to see and I empathise for the workers.

Lastly it would be interesting to know how many Christchurch people actually feel safe at work in their jobs in possibly unstable buildings, are they feeling the way I do which is expendable and replaceable? How many like myself are asked to enter buildings within hours of major quakes, that are NOT checked by the buildings owners or engineers for non-essential work I.e emergency, power, telecommunications, medical etc) and feel they may lose their jobs if they don't comply.... There should be a law in place particular to this situation to protect non-essential workers from being bullied into entering possibly dangerous buildings. Starting to look a bit like Pike Mine and human lives are surplus to making money from greedy bosses who care little for their workers.

Julia   #3   01:57 pm Feb 13 2012

Boldly said Will. I also think the Christchurch City Council has let us down.

timetravelerjen   #4   02:00 pm Feb 13 2012

How about the insurers who keep telling people their 100 plus year old house (since September) can be rebuilt, there is no possibility the house will collapse etc to save them paying out the bucks only to have them collapse in February or June and hello December. This insurer maddness only so EQC would have to pay more out (read taxpayer) so the insurer can pay less to the homeowner.Bottom line politics -- A very Dangerous game.

Ted   #5   02:47 pm Feb 13 2012

Spot on, not I hope they do the same to the uncertified parts of Riccarton Mall and the Palms. From day one they should have been telling us if the building was safe. Can it take another 6 or 7, not just its about the same as before - i.e it could have killed you before and it can still kill you now.

Nigel   #6   02:55 pm Feb 13 2012

To Expendable2012: I do feel the same: my office has got well visible cracks all over and had not been checked since the Dec. event. Only some interior make-up work had been done to the ceiling (pretty well damaged in Dec.). I and my colleagues were forced to enter it and work over the holidays period and on. The matter of work is more than non-essential. And the threat to loose a job if we do not comply is very real. Good as gold, but what to do?

Tarquin   #7   03:11 pm Feb 13 2012

Engineers do act ethically, I got an engineer to inspect my residential property and the advice was that it needed to be demolished, EQC claim it only has superficial damage and can be repaired by Fletchers. EQC is a responsible Govt Dept - yeah right! It is a bit rich to blame engineers, you may want to check who is taking their advice and who is ignoring it.

Ian   #8   03:55 pm Feb 13 2012

When will those of you who own their own homes, go off and get an engineer's report on the integrity of your house? If they come back and say, Sorry, you have to move out right now... what will you do?

Replace the term "Landlord" in the above, with "Homeowner". Reflect it upon yourselves. Have YOU had your own house checked yet?

Remember, it's not EQCs or insurer's responsibility, it's yours.

Expendable2012   #9   04:49 pm Feb 13 2012

Nigel # 26, You do wonder if things turn to custard again, that those who may lose their lives or get seriously injured in buildings that are friable and possibly unstable, if a concert, some flowers and a memorial with your name emblazoned in stone is worth the sacrifice each and every person who is unwittingly entering workplaces to keep bosses happy.

Oh and when I meant non essential I'm speaking of those not involved in emergency workers, whom are geared up and supported by crews when they enter buildings, compared to non essential workers whom may be even alone in possibly unstable buildings post aftershock.

I know plenty of people are scared, they grit there teeth and enter dangerous musty story buildings five days a week. You don't see us being paid danger money to work in buildings lazy landlords don't check. I once worked in a building tht was NEVER checked. I thought that quakes over 5.5 mag have to be checked. I know that after 3 over that magnitude at Xmas plenty haven't been checked and yet we work in them.........

MD   #10   04:50 pm Feb 13 2012

I think there's certainly a whole lot of blame to go around when it comes to the collapsed buildings that killed all those people, I think that all those involved should be made an example of, to serve as a warning to others in their professions that IF they let something slide, for whatever reason, they WILL be prosecuted and lose their livelihoods. I would feel a lot safer entering a building inspected by an engineer with their reputation and livelihood on the line than entering a building inspected by an engineer who knows he can shirk responsibility and blame if it happens to collapse and crush people.

Zero tolerance. We need to know that the engineers/architects/council can be trusted when it comes to our safety. If we can't trust them, they shouldn't be in the business of building or inspecting things for safety.


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