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Friday, 14 September 2012

Earthquake Royal Commission – transcript of the Roles and Responsibilities hearing held on 11 September 2012

The Royal Commission has published the transcript of the first day of the Roles and Responsibilities hearing held on the 11th of September. The transcript can be downloaded from here.

The first submitter to be heard was John Scarry, a structural engineer who, for some years, has been critical  of the quality of structural engineering and building construction in New Zealand. The following is from the beginning of his submission (page 7):

New Zealand can only claim to lead the world in seismic engineering in the same way that an army could claim to be undefeated because it has never fought a war. As soon as a major modern New Zealand city was hit  with  a  decent  seismic event,  a very short  one,  devastation  was caused. Of  something  like  200  buildings over five  storeys  tall in the 15 CBD, at least  100  will  definitely  be  demolished  and  many  of  the  rest may still be. To claim that except for the CTV building all modern post-1982  buildings  performed  their  life  safety  function  is  at  best disingenuous. That claim  was  fair  only  if  all  of  these  buildings  had performed  as  intended,  forming  perfect  plastic  hinges  at  the  ends  of  20 beams  and  at  the  bottom of  columns and shear walls. That  did  not happen. Most  of  them  developed all sorts of potentially catastrophic failure modes that simply were not meant to occur, and if the earthquake had been a big one from the main Alpine Fault, less intense than the 22nd of February 2011, but of two minutes’ duration, there would've been  25 wholesale collapses.  Appalling  standards  of  diaphragm  design and construction and the brittleness of welded wire mesh form the major part of the warnings I issued in 2002, particularly in the first version of my open  letter  which  I  will  only  now  show  to  people  in  camera.  These concerns  were  dismissed,  but  I  have  been  fully  vindicated  by  the  30 earthquakes  of  2011. I  have  tried  for  10  years  to  get  these  issues addressed,  only  to  be  ignored,  or  in  the  case  of  IPENZ  deliberately subverted.  Only now is brittle mesh slowly being banned.  Progress on  diaphragms is negligible and these are just the tip of the icebergs of the dangers I have raised.  

After  starting,  after  I  started  drafting  my  open  letter  the  O’Sullivan brothers’ revelations on leaky buildings came out. Together these led to the  re-drafting  of  the  Building Act. Unfortunately  the  people  at  the Ministry  of  Economic  Development  charged  with  the  task  under  Peter Mumford simply did not know what they were doing and ignored all of my  submissions,  suggestions  and  warnings.  The  Act  has  been  a disaster.  The worst leaky buildings have almost been dealt with but the rest  are  still  in  absolute  crisis. One  of  the  most  important  reforms  I pushed  for  was  a  strong  technically  competent  building  authority.  Instead  we  got  the  Department  of  Building  and  Housing,  described recently by an engineer who is certainly no ally of mine as having two and a half structural engineers.  The senior management is full of ex-Treasury,  MED,  local  government,  WINZ  and  Department  of  Social  Welfare bureaucrats.  

Reading his comments, especially as he correlates bad earthquake design and construction with the incompetence discovered through the leaky building disaster, is both fascinating and depressing.

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