If in doubt, get a second opinion

TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Builder Gideon Couper says the EQC's iPads are the wrong tool for designing house repairs.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Builder Gideon Couper says the EQC's iPads are the wrong tool for designing house repairs.

Gideon Couper has been a builder for 25 years. Recently he did a stint as an EQC estimator. Now he is on the other side, helping people repair their homes. What he sees every day worries him.

We live in extraordinary times and with that comes extraordinary problems. As a builder, I have had to assess buildings that have lifted, fallen, cracked and been completely ripped apart. There was no training for this. I would be surprised if any of Canterbury's builders had seen anything like it either.

So, from the morning of September 4, 2010, onwards, it has been an education in what earthquakes can do to buildings and a multitude of reasons why one building can be fine while another next door is destroyed.

Many people are living with the day-to-day problems that these earthquakes have visited on them.

I am beginning to see the shortcomings in the assessments done by EQC almost daily. I constantly get calls from people unsure about what they should do.

Here are some recent examples.

- A Linwood house built around 1950 which was assessed by EQC as needing plastering and painting work and some pile jacking. I found the house was out of level by 100mm and suggested an engineer look at the house. He found gib bracing had failed and the house needed to be completely repiled.

- A Cashmere house built around 1945 was assessed without checking the roof or foundation. A structural engineer found significant damage to roof framing.

- A Redwood house built around 1980 was assessed as needing plastering and painting but I found a 45mm fall. An engineer found the land was not capable of bearing weight down to 1.5m.

- A 1950 piled house with brick veneer was repaired by Fletcher but the owner felt uneasy. An inspection revealed the chimney had sunk significantly, dragging the floor and roof structure down with it.

- A Rangiora house with brick veneer was assessed as needing a small amount of brick replacement and repointing. An inspection revealed bricks were loose and, on most walls, the ties were no longer attached to the bricks.

In the winter following the February aftershocks, building work was very slim on the ground and, when I was rung by EQC offering me a job, I took it.

I felt that I would do my bit. I was keen. But I was soon concerned and one week into the job I was worried. By the end of my three-week rotation, I was downright horrified. I think nearly all those I worked with had good intentions, but there was little training and more than half had no building experience at all.

They were mostly former police officers. Many of them were from out of town and, in my training class of 100, only five appeared to be from Christchurch.

The training involved one visit to an earthquake-damaged house in Mt Pleasant. Those of us who had building experience had next to no experience with earthquake damage.

We were, however, given fairly good training on how to use the iPad. We became good at measuring houses and entering this information. In fact, I wondered why we were going to such effort to do this - even on an undamaged house - when this information was freely available from the council. I once was told off for not defining every wall of an undamaged Skyline garage.

But when it came to damage, that was a different story.

The iPad was an excellent data-collection tool but a poor tool for scoping a repair strategy. I don't think it would have mattered how much training was given simply because the iPad gave you limited options and this would lead to ridiculous repair strategies being given.

Not only that, it was impossible to suggest that a structural engineer needed to look at a house unless it had basically fallen over.

What this means for homeowners is that many assessments have been done by under-qualified, under-trained, well-meaning people on a poor performing tool and the result is reflected in the scope of works that both homeowners and Fletcher get.

One manager at a Fletcher hub told me 19 out of 20 scopes were being sent back to EQC. Perhaps that was an exaggeration but it was backed up by my own experience. All the scopes of work I have dealt with had mistakes, many of them quite serious and one scope of works wasn't even for the right house.

A house should be repaired to pre-quake standards

Ultimately the homeowner wants the house repaired to a prequake condition. I always apply this test when assessing a house: If this house was put up for sale and a House Check-type inspection was done, would any damage be picked up and identified as earthquake damage? If so, then it needs to be repaired now.

This leads me to my greatest concern and that is that many people will get their house repaired based on the EQC scope of works only to find later their house is unsaleable due to damage that was not identified by EQC or Fletcher.

You can bet the defects will certainly be picked up by engineers working for the potential buyer.

If you have any doubts about your scope of work, ask a builder to have a look. If you're working with Fletcher already, make sure you broach the subject with the project manager.

Fletcher does want to do a good job and will address real concerns. It does have engineers available although often there will be quite a wait, but it will be worth it. If that fails, get your own report. There are plenty of engineers working for themselves who offer reasonably priced structural assessments.

A lot of this damage is hard to recognise so be proactive now and you should avoid problems later on.

I have spoken to several real estate agents about the potential for problems and they all agree this is a very likely outcome. Although, at the moment, the focus is on poor finish jobs - and of course not many jobs have been completed - most home sales already require an engineer's report on houses and these will pick up that unscoped, unrepaired damage.

Good luck and don't be afraid to ask for help.

The Press