29 Apr 2013

Council satisfied building assessments correct

12:11 pm on 29 April 2013

Wellington City Council does not believe engineers are being overly cautious when making earthquake risk assessments.

Structural engineers say some buildings are being condemned unnecessarily because assessments have been too conservative.

John Hare, president of the Structural Engineering Society, says since the Christchurch earthquakes, engineers have been too conservative in evaluating the seismic strength of buildings, partly for fear of their own potential liability.

"In reality there's quite a lot of conservatism ... built into our design standards, as there should be, and people are applying those same standards to the evaluation of existing buildings, which they shouldn't be."

One building in Wellington has been closed because of an earthquake risk.

Wellington City Council manager of earthquake resilience Neville Brown says a stringent process is in place to ensure assessments are correct and engineers' reports are peer reviewed.

"Their job is a difficult one because they have to balance the earthquake risks across the use of the building.

"I have no sense that they are being overly conservative but it is indeed their reputation on the line if they get it wrong."

Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson says he is happy that engineers are erring on the side of caution in assessing the earthquake strength of buildings.

Mr Williamson told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme that he is happy engineers are erring on the "right side of the ledger".

"I don't have a concern that engineers are worried about liability and act a little bit more conservatively that they should," he says. "On the other hand I don't want them to go silly and start closing buildings helter-skeleter when there's no need for it."

The minister said he is disappointed by the seeming lack of accountability of engineers, and also that no-one has ever been held to account over the collapse of the CTV building in Christchurch in the February 2011 quake.

Pressure on skill levels

Auckland structural engineer John Scarry says there have been problems with the skill levels in engineering for years and the greatly increased workload in New Zealand is increasing the pressure.

The Institution of Professional Engineers says a quality assurance framework for more junior staff is in progress and would allow senior staff to review their work.

The president of the Property Council, Tony Sewell, told Morning Report the issue is far wider than engineers' assessments.

He believes the key is for commercial property investors to be more careful in their valuations of buildings and not to pay too much for them. Mr Sewell said they must understand that if their purchase is below building code they will have to spend money.