Collapsed building, broken process

By Rebecca Macfie In Current Affairs

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Emergency services search the rumble for survivors of the collapsed CTV building. Photo/Brett Phibbs

Emergency services search the rumble for survivors of the collapsed CTV Building. Photo/Brett Phibbs

Three and a half years after the CTV Building pancaked in the Christchurch earthquake, the families of the 115 people who died got a faint whiff of accountability.

David Harding, the inexperienced engineer who designed the seriously flawed building 28 years ago, said sorry. He didn’t say it in person, in the presence of the families. He said it via a sworn affidavit read yesterday by a young lawyer in front of a disciplinary committee of the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ). Harding himself was too ill to appear.

But nevertheless, a genuine apology was delivered. “No day goes by without me thinking of the CTV Building and the loss of life. Again, my heartfelt apologies go to the families who suffered as a consequence of what I did or what I should have done. My life also shall never be the same.”

David Harding. Photo/Dean Kozanic

David Harding. Photo/Dean Kozanic

Harding’s affidavit was the tale of a broken man. His mental and physical health has collapsed, his memory is shattered, and he has declared his engineering career will end in September.

Harding designed the CTV Building in 1986 while in the employ of Alan M Reay Consulting. Reay’s firm was commissioned to do the work by a property developer and Reay, the principal of the firm, delegated the design task entirely to Harding – a man he knew to have minimal experience in the design of multi-storey buildings, and none at all with the complex asymmetric design required for this building.

Reay then failed to check or review his underling’s work. When the design was challenged by a senior Christchurch City Council building officer, Reay intervened in the process and the design was given approval, despite it being non-compliant with the design standards of the day.

Harding declares he had mistakenly assumed Reay was checking his design.

This situation of an inexperienced engineer, whose work went unchecked by his superior or anyone with greater knowledge, was “unusual…possibly unique”, according to Adam Thornton, a member of the IPENZ investigating committee that looked into complaints laid against Harding following the building’s collapse.

The investigating committee’s report, a summary of which was read at yesterday’s hearing, said it was primarily Reay’s responsibility to ensure the design was checked by someone competent. But Harding also had a duty as a registered engineer to ensure his design was properly over-viewed, given his own acknowledged lack of experience.

Alan Reay. Photo/David Hallet

Alan Reay. Photo/David Hallet

Reay has repeatedly sought to deny responsibility for the failed building’s design, and to lay responsibility at the feet of his former junior employee. Earlier this year a representative of Reay told the Listener he felt “deep regret that he continues to be attacked for a building which he did not design, certified [sic] or supervise in its construction”.

The closest Reay has come to acknowledging his part in the CTV disaster is this statement to the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission: “I apologise to all the families affected as this building did not meet my standards.”

The actions of both Reay and Harding in response to the complaints against them have revealed the engineering profession’s disciplinary procedures to be farcically inadequate.

Reay resigned from IPENZ several months ago while the work of the organisation’s investigating committee was still underway. According to IPENZ chief executive Andrew Cleland, that meant the complaints process could continue only to the next “decision point”. In Reay’s case, that was the completion of a report by the investigating committee, which recommended that the complaints be dismissed because his resignation left the organisation powerless to sanction him.

Ten days before yesterday’s scheduled hearing of the complaints against Harding, he too resigned from IPENZ. His lawyer argued this meant the disciplinary committee could not proceed with a hearing because IPENZ’s rules have jurisdiction only over current members. The committee decided to proceed with the hearing regardless, even though his resignation from IPENZ renders it is powerless to order any disciplinary action against him.

Both men also face complaints relating to their status as chartered engineers. IPENZ is able to rule on these despite their resignation from the organisation. In Reay’s case, he applied for chartered status for the first time in his career soon after the February 2011 earthquake. He didn’t mention that his firm was responsible for the design of the CTV Building, the failure of which was the cause of two-thirds of all of the deaths in the city that day.

Harding, who applied to renew his chartered status in July 2011, also failed to mention that he was the designer of the building. The investigating committee told yesterday’s hearing that it was for Harding to act “with integrity” and inform IPENZ of his involvement in such a catastrophic failure. “The onus was on Mr Harding to volunteer that information, and not for his assessors to seek out and discover it.”

If the complaints regarding Reay and Harding’s status as chartered engineers are upheld, the penalties will be almost meaningless in the circumstances. IPENZ can remove or suspend them from the register, censure or inflict a fine of up to $5000. But there is currently no requirement for engineers to be chartered to practice in New Zealand – and Harding has declared he is leaving the profession anyway.

Maan Alkaisi at the CTV site where his wife died. Photo/Martin Hunter

Maan Alkaisi at the CTV site where his wife died. Photo/Martin Hunter

The story of denial and abdication of responsibility that has surrounded the CTV Building tragedy could not be more different from this remarkable tale of professional honesty and bravery.

Maan Alkaisi, whose wife Maysoon Abaas died in the building and who will not let this travesty rest, rightly calls the collapse of the CTV Building the biggest engineering failure that New Zealand has witnessed.

March1CoverThe aftermath has left New Zealand’s peak engineering body looking inept and shambling – precisely at a time in the Christchurch rebuild and the seismic upgrade of buildings around the country when we need to have confidence in engineers.

Building and housing minister Nick Smith’s promised reform of the profession cannot come soon enough.

Read Rebecca Macfie’s cover story from earlier this year: Collapse of Accountability

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