Surveyor highlights multi-storey building flaws that are almost 'the norm'

by Phil Pennington / 28 September, 2017

Rotten timber and fibre cement board compromise the fixing of panels to a multi-storey apartment block; a pen inserted into rusted structural steel framing holding up several floors of a multi-storey building; inadequate foundations revealed only when a house was demolished due to leaks. Photo / Supplied

A building surveyor has revealed details of hidden and sometimes life-threatening building faults, including an apartment block not bolted to its foundations.

Thomas Wutzler runs Wellington survey firm Helfen and inspects buildings in several New Zealand towns and cities.

He said his firm had found apartment blocks with walls so rotten someone could fall through them, and where heavy exterior panels could fall on someone.

Thomas Wutzler​. Photo / Phil Pennington

 In some cases the faults had been fixed but in many others, he said, serious deficiencies remained because people had no money to do repairs and the 10-year period in which they could sue builders, designers or the council had expired.

"They used to do a lot more fixing when they had the ability to recover the funds. These days a lot of the people we meet have no ability to recover anything, and don't have the means to fix it anyway, so there's not much they can do about it."

Mr Wutzler gave RNZ six specific examples of alarming faults he said his firm had found in buildings.

In each case, construction work had been done since 2000 and inspections had been carried out in the last four years. Some were current issues.

Problems were "very common", Mr Wutzler said. "We find a lot of connections missing - significant structural connections - bracing elements missing. In fact, it's more the norm."

Legal action resulting from the faulty building work was often settled out of court, he said, so did not get publicity.

The buildings

RNZ is unable to identify the buildings for legal reasons and, for some, we have not identified the building's location.

15+ storey apartment block

    • Leaks in outside panels had rotted the fibre cement and timber behind. The firm reported this to the owner, who was intending to fix it.

5+ storey upmarket apartment block, Wellington

    • Plans showed timber-framed balconies, but they had in fact been built of concrete blocks not fixed at either end or properly fixed at the bottom to the balconies themselves.
    • A large atrium window was too lightweight and so inadequately fixed it could have fallen out.
    • Thomas Wutzler​: "We were lucky we didn't attach several tonne of facade to the infill concrete... When we looked at that building I think [the builder] clearly knew they should be putting [reinforcing] steel in there and the consequence of not putting steel in there could lead to somebody seriously being hurt or killed."

Several separate apartment blocks

    • Leaks affected fixings that hold exterior panels on.
    • A few of the most badly-cracked panels had been replaced but a dispute had held up an overall fix.
    • Thomas Wutzler​ said his firm was called in for other work and only found this "by chance". He said if nothing was done in the next three to five years, panels could fall off. "Some of the sheets on rotten timber, there is the potential. They're far from ideal."

Apartment block, several storeys, Wellington

    • Rotten balconies at risk of falling off.
    • Once cladding came off, it revealed steel framing studs were sitting on threaded bolts in the foundation, but the nuts were missing.
    • Steel bracing within the walls not properly connected.
    • Thomas Wutzler said two other consultancies had passed the block, and he was called in to do a quick final survey. He said the faults meant the block was at risk of jumping off its foundations in a major earthquake. The steel bracing issue meant the building was more likely to shear sideways.

Hillside home

    • The leaky house was demolished, revealing the garage's concrete beams were not connected to the ground, and the house slab and piles had been built on uncompacted fill.
    • Thomas Wutzler said this would mean it was liable to slump, or even move downhill in a quake or heavy rain.

Penthouse added to existing building

  • Penthouse not properly connected to the structure beneath it.
  • Penthouse steel framing did not extend all the way up the walls as it should have.
  • Windows not structurally sound.
  • Thomas Wutzler: "We wouldn't have found that unless we were remediating it. I asked [structural engineers] to try and explain to me the cause of the cracking, and none of them could really put their finger on it."

Council has confidence in compliance staff

Wellington City Council said it would not "engage in detail" on the concerns after RNZ refused to reveal which buildings in that city Mr Wutzler was referring to.

"We would, however, be very interested to hear more from Mr Wutzler about his more troubling claims," the council said.

"Suffice to say, we are very confident about the skills and competence of our building compliance staff but we are always follow up on complaints about their performance."

Mr Wutzler said many high-rises his firm inspected nationwide had similar or worse problems than the examples he has given, and in most cases, there was no requirement to notify any authorities about the deficiencies.

He said if his firm found threats to life, he felt morally obliged to tell the building owner first.

Then, if nothing was done, he would inform the local council.

The multi-storey structural issues were in addition to "hundreds of thousands" of people in leaky homes and offices.

Mr Wutzler said these systemic, endemic problems could have been addressed while the country was in a quiet construction cycle, but there was "no political will". Now the sector was very busy, it was simply repeating the same mistakes, and adding in new ones, he said.

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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