Editorial: Dangerous reminder

Hip hop concert opening act Tommy Ill said the floor collapsed under the weight of the crowd.
Hip hop concert opening act Tommy Ill said the floor collapsed under the weight of the crowd.

The collapse of a floor at the University of Canterbury's events centre was serious, but its implications for the Christchurch rebuild are even more worrying. If this can happen to a building designed and constructed after the main earthquakes, what confidence can we have in the safety of similar buildings?

The floor collapse might seem explainable. Nine hundred students were pounding the floor in time to a hip-hop beat, many of them concentrated in front of the stage in a building hurriedly conceived and put up and meant to be temporary. But none of that should have resulted in a collapse that could easily have caused injury, or worse.

The events centre was designed to accommodate 1400 people - people who might have been expected to be attending a concert and to express themselves as people do at such events, by stomping, dancing and jumping. The floor should have been designed to take such punishment.

That it was not is likely to be the result of human error, but it is unlikely to be sheeted home, such is the confusion about liability for building failures in general. The issues are being looked at by the various official investigations into buildings that failed in the earthquakes. In those cases, we have witnessed the unsatisfactory spectacle of engineers, architects and councils manoeuvring to avoid responsibility for not designing for safety.

In the case of the university's events centre, Warren and Mahoney, which came up with the concept of the building and oversaw the project, says it is not to blame. But how can you properly oversee a project without ensuring its engineering and construction are up to standard?

It may be that the architects fulfilled their obligations completely, but that means someone else blundered. Canterbury's students, their parents and the wider community are entitled to know who, not to seek retribution but to ensure that those who build are held to account if something goes wrong.

If people are to have confidence in the city's new buildings - a confidence vital if the central business district is to be reinhabited - they must know that effective anti-earthquake standards are in place and that architects, engineers and constructors are adhering to them.

Without a clearly understood and vigorously enforced duty of liability, the incentive for building safety will be lessened.

The university is now suffering the consequences of inadequate construction and is likely to do so for some time.

Its events centre was rushed into being as vital to attracting students. The union building was damaged and a new socialising venue was needed to allow students to gather and enjoy themselves, which they rightly regard as one of the pleasures of university life.

Now, though, the new venue is closed and must undergo repair and perhaps strengthening work at a time when tertiary institutions are in serious competition for students and Canterbury is discounted by some potential students as being in earthquake territory.

The university will survive because of its sound administration and reputation as an outstanding educator. It suffered tens of millions of dollars of earthquake damage, but 220 of its 240 structures can be occupied and it has the skills and resources to get an events venue up and running again. But the university and the city now know that new structures require rigorous design.

The Press