6 Dec 2019

Developer declined Rockwell group responsible for substandard building in Christchurch

8:09 am on 6 December 2019

A property developer says he rejected the developers who went on to build a substandard multistorey in Christchurch's central mall.

Building at 230 High Street, Christchurch.

Photo: RNZ / Katie Todd

The building at 230 High Street is in limbo, having been ruled as substandard with numerous design weaknesses that are an earthquake risk.

The building's fundamental flaws have only been revealed because a junior structural engineer was walking past one night in late 2017, looked behind the construction fence and didn't like what he saw - his firm, Aurecon, then blew the whistle to the council.

The public learned of this when a report was leaked to RNZ.

A full two years of wrangling later - during which time the building was completed, as was one next door - experts have confirmed there are 10 significant weaknesses in the design or construction of columns, bracing, the calculation of seismic loads, hold-down bolts, the pile design and the stairs.

The building consent team at the city council said it was "gutted" the eight-storey design got through its checking systems.

But developer Antony Gough is unforgiving, saying the council puts him through the mill on consents, and should've done the same with the Rockwell Group that was behind the High Street build.

"Two or three years ago, they approached us, were aware that we wanted to build a carparking building in Hereford Street. They said that they felt that Christchurch was being overcharged for buildings and that they could do it so much better," Mr Gough said.

He looked into Rockwell, he said.

Companies office records show it was set up in 2014 and 2015 by business interests originally from Korea, and in online posts says it offers seismic engineering and specialised construction.

"They had a company that was only about $100 shareholding, was less than a month old and had no experience in New Zealand or Christchurch whatsoever," Mr Gough said.

"So we said, 'No thank you, Jose'. We don't think they knew enough about the local conditions. They were obviously quite keen to try and get in and show everyone that they could build it much simpler and easier."

RNZ has made unsuccessful attempts to contact Rockwell.

Oddly, while all this was going on, last year the building was being marketed by a real estate agent, who says no one warned him.

Now the public is not allowed into the block, it is not compliant with the Building Code and the council that consented it, refuses to sign off on the building.

But the council's head of consenting, Robert Wright, said there is no need now for them to step in.

"It hasn't been declared dangerous," he said.

"The definition of dangerous in our Building Code doesn't include in the event of an earthquake, oddly. It's not a situation that the legislation puts together."

There were probably occupied buildings elsewhere in central Christchurch that had lower quake ratings than 230 High Street, he added.

However, the ministry ruling on 230 High St makes grim reading: "Departed significantly" from standards, it said; "the hold-down anchor bolts ... had insufficient capacity"; "there was no reliable structural mechanism for sharing the load"; "the frame ... had insufficient capacity to resist the design loads", and so on.

It is up to the building owner to strengthen or reduce the building's height if that's even possible, demolish it, or leave it, which might trigger a Notice to Fix from the council.

Robert Wright does not hold his team accountable for consenting the design, because it was chartered professional engineers who told them it was OK.

"We're far from happy with the situation, we're gutted," he said.

"We rely on the expertise of those engineers.

"The system that we have is one that's shared right throughout New Zealand - design verification and peer review verification and regulatory verification should be enough to prevent this sort of thing happening."

But it has not been. Now, the council and Engineering New Zealand are working to get a system that lets local bodies know more about engineers' competence and insurance.

It is not just 230 High Street that may have a problem. The ministry's ruling said neighbouring buildings were so close-by that "further investigation" was needed into how the defective structure might twist in a quake.

The building owners either side did not want to comment.

The main structural design engineer Joo Cho of Seismotech Consulting refused to comment.

The peer reviewers who approved his design, Miyamoto International refused to comment.

Aurecon likewise would not comment.

Antony Gough is getting his carpark building constructed in Hereford Street, using engineers he believes are good.