Hearing underway into defects at Lower Hutt retirement apartments

11:24 am on 18 June 2020

A plumbing investigator says tradespeople who raise the alarm about defective work but carry on doing it, carry the can.

Woburn Apartments in Lower Hutt.

Woburn Apartments in Lower Hutt. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

A disciplinary hearing by the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board is underway into mass defects at scores of near-new retirement apartments in Lower Hutt, a situation exposed by RNZ last September.

A certifying plumber, Vincent Cookson, denies nine charges of doing negligent or incompetent plumbing.

The hearing, set down for three days, has so far heard about a series of blunders, including by the designers, inspectors and the council.

Cookson's lawyer Matt Freeman told the hearing that the plumber warned the builder, Armstrong Downes, about a big problem with the drains in the showers - but nothing was done.

However, Plumbing Board investigator David Thomas said the certifying plumber had to do much more than just speak up.

"You couldn't keep installing them the way they were, because they weren't correct, they didn't comply.

"So it's no good saying, 'Oh these aren't right, but I'll just keep going'.

"Surely you've got to have that ability to say, 'This is where we stop', document it, then wait for a solution to come back," Thomas told the five-member panel in Wellington yesterday.

The mass defects that allowed noxious sewer gas to vent into some elderly people's apartments, and the 86-apartment complex's bar area and rubbish room, and mould to bloom in shower trays, were still being fixed late last year - 18 months after being revealed.

There was no written record of the plumber raising the alarm during construction, Thomas said.

"On a job that size, when it's something where you could potentially have foul air entering the room, I would have documented it up the wazoo, to cover my backside."

Gases venting

The gas venting, which went on for months undetected, was due to defects in some apartments' floor wastes.

The defence argued the trap priming valves were mechanically faulty, so failed to squirt water in to seal the wastes.

But Thomas said regardless, it was up to the certifying plumber to get it right.

"You have now got gases venting into the room, so it's absolutely vital you are doing that quality assurance to check [they worked]."

The source of the shower problem was with the design - concrete beams were in the way of where the shower drains were meant to go, the panel heard.

Virtual Plumbing shifted the drain holes and cut new holes in steel channels in response - this broke with the flawed design, but also allowed water to gather in shower channels, posing a sanitary risk.

An example of the photos sent to the council showing bacteria buildup beneath tiling at the Woburn development.

An example of the photos sent to the council showing bacteria buildup beneath tiling at the Woburn development. Photo: Hutt City Council / Supplied

The project manager and employee of the complex's developer, the Masonic Villages Trust, Alan Atack acknowledged that a site inspection raised the misalignment of the shower drains as a "high risk" that the architects must do something about.

Engineering firm Beca "could have done more, they could have said 'stop work'," Atack said.

Beca designed the plumbing, and was in charge of monitoring to ensure the construction was up to standard.

"I assume nothing was done because ... it was never repaired, fixed or addressed," David Thomas told the hearing.

Cookson's firm, Virtual Plumbing, must have known about the beams/shower problem "because they could see it", Thomas said.

The failed repair - punching extra holes in the channels - came as a "surprise" to him, Atack said.

Holes in plans

Beca omitted to include on its plans two crucial backflow preventers to ensure chemical-tainted water from the hair salon and spa did not get sucked into the drinking water supply, the hearing was told.

An example of the photos sent to the council showing bacteria buildup beneath tiling at the Woburn development.

An example of the photos sent to the council showing bacteria buildup beneath tiling at the Woburn development. Photo: Hutt City Council / Supplied

Lawyer Matt Freeman said Cookson raised the backflow problem with Armstrong Downes.

But Atack said the next he knew, the drainage was in place, with no preventers - and he still did not know who had done the work.

Beca's plans had "made their way through Hutt City Council and been stamped off as a compliant installation", Atack said.

Freeman responded: "Everyone has missed everything [but] Mr Cookson - he didn't. Mr Cookson's the only one who picked" up on the backflow preventers being missing.

The plans for the rubbish room were also criticised for showing a flat floor, which meant the floor drain didn't work properly.

Beca's engineer should have known the floor needed to slope, and if he did then he "should have drawn it on the plans", Thomas said.

Project manager 'baffled'

The defence has argued that the defects were due to others' work, such as the tilers' in the showers; that the plumber wasn't alerted to the design problems the others knew about; and that construction monitoring by Beca, site walkabouts that included builder Armstrong Downes, and numerous council inspections did not pick up on the problems.

Alan Atack said he was "still baffled" why they didn't find the defects - just lifting a removable drain channel cover in a shower would have revealed some.

The plumber who discovered them, Michael Stevenson - who said he was alerted of foul smells by a half a dozen reports by residents - then did an audit of all the apartments commissioned by the Masonic Villages Trust, told the hearing there had been dozens of earlier inspections that approved the work.

It was easy to find the gunk in the shower channels - "like a petri dish" - with your finger, he said.

He was "disgusted" at the Hutt City Council's lack of action after it was alerted to his audit, Stevenson said.

The council gave the apartments compliance sign-off.

After the defects came to light, it refused to inspect the remedial work, in part out of fear of being held partially liable - though it argued publicly this was because the repairs did not require building consent.

An inquiry into its consenting processes never eventuated.

David Thomas told the hearing the buck stopped with the certifying plumber.

"The first time, when they realised they had an issue, that should have been raised.

"I would have documented it, and stopped work."

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