John Chaplin says repairing quake-damaged homes has the potential to lead to a disaster similar to the leaky homes debacle

John Chaplin says repairing quake-damaged homes has the potential to lead to a disaster similar to the leaky homes debacle
Are mistakes and cost cutting by project managers and insurers building a liability legacy like the leaky homes disaster?

By John Chaplin*

More than two years on from the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, the process of repairing and rebuilding homes is still only just beginning. 

A great many homes have had repairs completed, but these have tended to be the houses with minor damage.

Currently fewer than a quarter of the worst affected homes have been repaired or rebuilt.

Most red zone claims have now been settled, either with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) or a private insurer, but for the thousands of home owners who have had confirmation their homes need to be rebuilt, very few have actually got past the design stage, and thousands more are caught up in disputes with insurers and project management officers (PMOs) about what exactly they are entitled to.

My personal experience is in line with this; after more than two years and four separate on-site scoping assessments, I am still none the wiser about whether our home is under or over the cap, so the significant repairs required are still well over a year away. 

As a result of these delays, the level of dilapidation and consequential damage is increased, leading to the need for additional and more complex repairs, and another layer of debate and risk.

Staying positive about the situation is becoming more and more problematic.

As an architect dealing with the fall-out of insurance claims from not only my own property and office building, but those of numerous clients from the past 35 years, trying to remain optimistic is wearing thin. 

Many of my clients have not been able to live in their homes since 22 February 2011, and still have no firm commitment from their insurer about the path to repair or rebuild.

The reality of the task of repairing the 100,000-plus earthquake-damaged houses in Christchurch is finally hitting home.

The task is being made more daunting by the resistance of insurers to adequately pay for the necessary repairs.

And it is not helped by the inexperience of assessors and the suspicion of engaging professionals. 

Because of this, the clear and definitive identification of damage and the correct repair methodology is being compromised in many instances.


A cliff top home is still awaiting demolition after two years.

The consequences of this are worrying, particularly as much of the repair work is being done under Schedule 1 of the Building Act (BA), as exempt work. 

This is most often under the direction of the insurer and the PMO, as it reduces costs and avoids the complication of consent documentation and a more robust inspection process.

It creates an interesting conundrum, as without the consent process, regimented council inspections are not carried out, and while all work must comply with the Building Code as required by Section 17 of the Building Act, there is nobody to give assurance or to be potentially liable for the work when it is carried out this way.

Because the work is not consented, and is not restricted, there is no fallback on the Licensed Building Practitioner scheme.

Also, any contractors who carry out the work will largely do so in good faith based on the scope of work prepared by the PMO. 

Any variation of work must be approved by the PMO, and this is often a convoluted process, making the alternative of ignoring and covering up any required additional damage an easier and quicker pathway.

Contractors are also aware of the overriding agenda of insurers and PMOs to keep costs down.

Significant evidence is coming to light from contractors that they are often severely compromised by the repair budget, which soon into the repair they find inadequate or inappropriate. 

There are three potential scenarios that we are seeing all too frequently with botched repair jobs.

Firstly, the work is not clearly identified in the scope of work but is deemed by the contractor as necessary for a robust and proper repair. The PMO does not approve the additional work. 

Secondly, a contractor completes the scope of work as determined by the PMO in good faith, but later the repair work fails. Often this is simply a case of the internal lining cracking again, but in a more serious incident it could involve a weathertightness or structural issue being overlooked.


An inexperienced assessor deemed this house repairable until an architect wrote it off.

The third scenario is that the damage and repair work is correctly scoped, but is not correctly executed due to poor workmanship. 

The last situation leaves the contractor exposed, but the former two have a more direct link back to the scoping document prepared by the PMO, and cost cutting by insurers. In the event of faulty repairs, this process can leave the homeowner with no quality assurance and no one to claim liability.

The whole subject of earthquake damage, repairs, insurers and PMOs is complex and frustrating. 

The knowledge and experience gained over the past two years should be contributing to the reduction of mistakes in scoping the damage and the understanding of what is required for correct remediation, but the underlying agenda of suspicion and the need to minimise costs is still overriding this.

As we learnt in the late 1990s and early 2000s, patch-up jobs only led to liability problems for those involved in the botched repairs. 

For me, having worked as an architect during the 1990s, the lack of action and accountability by many, particularly local and national government, involved in leaky homes built during that period, is hard to believe.

Yet, I can’t help but feel we are about to see a whole new generation make the same mistakes in Christchurch.

I sincerely hope this is not the case.

I cannot help but speak out as what I am seeing does not instill much confidence. 

There needs to be much more awareness about this issue in order to ensure the repair of homes is not left to continue on its current path and develop into another disastrous leaky home-style perfect storm.

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John Chaplin is an architect with the Christchurch firm Chaplin Crooks. This story was first published online in ArchitectureNow and is re-printed here with permission.

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Great article and a problem I hope does not present itself around the rest of the country as we experience a huge increase in building activity combined with a shortage of skilled tradesmen.

The number of botched repairs already done is overwhelming.
 
Many of this properties have been on sold by their distressed owners, but due to the overheated property market are being easily sold with these dodgy repairs to unsuspecting purchasers.
 
Types of dodgy workmanship I've seen (all unconsented and in my opinion illegal) but conducted under instruction from Fletchers PMO:
I've seen houses with substantially out of level with large cracks in the foundations (on properties just metres from a river where many of the neighbours were already written off), with bodged unconsented foundation wall rebuilds.  One that horrified me was a job on a Wroxton Tce property.  A section of foundation wall was cut out and replaced with a poured newly poured section.  There had been no attempt to bond the new section of foundation wall to the existing, the sides of the new section were not vertical and not even level - it looked like the kind of job an 8 year kid would do if you asked to do build it!  The house was under 100m from the Wairarapa Stream (where it's the size of a river), and was adjoining TC3 land although the site itself was TC2.  The amount the property was out of level significantly exceeded the DBH guidelines for a relevel, the work in my opinion should have had a consent and an engineering report.  It didn't.  If it had it would never have passed.
 
Another property on Harrow St Linwood that I viewed had unreinforced brick chimneys which had part collapsed and had cracked.  Fletcher's had not rebuilt the chimneys.  They had only put a patch on the iron roof to cover the chimney holes (not even replacing the full sheets of iron).  The base (to ceiling height) of the cracked masonry chimneys were simply repointed and left sitting above beds of the occupants (or future occupants) ie easily deadly considering what happening to similar homes in the immediate neighbourhood.  The cracked ceilings had an amateur attempt at "gap filling" (not plastering) and were painted so badly that you could follow the line of the filler and crack (no undercoat obviously).  Cracks in the foundation were told as being pre-existing as was the slightly uneven floors.  Again this property was TC2 but located within 20m of a 5m wide creek.  The owner had made formal complaints to Fletchers, but in the end had given up and put the property on the market.  Given they just wanted out and they were only asking about a 2009 price it sold relatively quickly.  Will the new owner pursue it?  Or is ChCh stuck with yet another bodged  and potentially deadly repair??
 
Another example is one of the multitude of 1990-2004 plaster board homes that have had substantial cladding cracking.  These are what Aucklanders call leaky homes, but in ChCh due to the climate, many are not actually leaking noticeably yet.  I have seen literally dozens of repairs done on these properties where the property is just recoated and repainted with gaps refilled.  If panels are broken and replaced they are done on a like for like basis, (ie in breach of the current building code) all without building consents.  This is just pure insanity, in some cases spending $60,000 plus doing earthquake repairs when an extra maybe $30,000 would have done a whole reclad to current code.  Surely fixing the problem now would be the sensible solution?  Especially considering that the Govt had has a scheme to fix leaky buildings.  The problem is that EQC and the owners don't even know or realise that these properties are leaky or don't care.  This is just another shambles for the future.
 
I could list ad infinitum dodgy unconsented repairs.  Yet nothing is being done to improve the situation and many owners and certainly the insurers don't want to know about it.  Indeed insurers are dragging this out so much many home owners are grateful for anything.
 
Of course most insurance policies explicitly state that if damage occurs then it will be repaired to the current building code so long as the building complied when it was built.  Why then can insurers (including and most especially EQC) expect they can defraud their customers by performing potentially illegal work??
 
An enquiry is needed.
 
(Note that this is holding up many claims as well, since EQC are currently assessing the cost of properties needing total foundation rebuilds on TC3 as only being the TC1 cost with no consent fees required.  They are also considering properties with tall complex masonry chimneys needing totally rebuilt, as needing no permits, nor engineering, nor even design work!  I have several of my own claims in this situation including ones with substantial structural damage (according to dbh criteria) that they don't even want to put any earthquake bracing into.  Then of course they don't won't to insulate walls etc when they are opened up, (even though if you were getting a permit to do the work the CCC would have in the past insisted it was insulated before relining).
 
All just a shambles...
 
It really all needs, exposed, but it is just too overwhelming...

Hi Chris
Would you like to contact me regarding reporting some of this? My email is mark@straightup.co.nz. I publish BoB, the Business of Building (a builders' publication).

Well put Chris_J, I could add more examples but he covers it well so i'll take the other side of the market, new house construction in Canterbury..where are the building inspectors, the quality of work being performed is so variable especially foundation work. I have seen reinforced steel sticking out the top of foundations after a concrete pour..rough as guts so much of the work and the tolerance levels accepted have become extreme.
Someone needs to look at the whole industry consents or not..
 

Very good article.
We have the leaky home problem, and as you say, the potential for a crisis with Christchurch houses.
I see on the telly a couple of nights ago a similar problem exists with appartments and body corporates. They have not been putting enough aside for future repairs and could all end in another leaky homes crisis situation.
Soon there wont be any houses left in NZ worth buying.

Can a homeowner insist on wanting building consents for any work normally consented?
 
If not - what is the paper trail?  No wonder folks are settling for cash - at least then, I assume, they can get out of the clutches of unconsented Fletchers controlled work? 

You absolutely must have a consent to do any building work that needs a consent. Check http://www.buildingguide.co.nz/building-guide/building-consents

If those images of central Christchurch on Feb 22 2011 taught us anything, it should be that we need to think very carefully about building regulation.
Following the media lately, there seems to be a real push from the "cut red tape/developer knows best" camp.
Very dangerous.

So John the question arises as to why as a design professional you have been designing homes that have been structurally deficient for 35 years. Seems to me yo clipped the ticket once and now you are hoping to get a second bite at the cherry.

Scarfie - maybe not entirely fair. Architects probably have to deliver what the customer wants, and what the customer wants is driven by peer-pressure, fear.....
 
But I think the ultimate problem is across-the-board arrogance. We simply, collectively, thinke we're above worring about Mother Nature any more. We're above bothering about such things as rain falling down, moisture egressing from heated environments, mass vs inertia, the declining quality of materials (we cherry-picked the best timbers first, now it's cardboard requiring bigger washers).
 
Well, Mother Nature still operates. Rain still falls, earthquakes still happen, moisture follows the laws of physics. It's across-the-board we have to learn from this, but memories are pretty short, ass-covering is pretty endemic, and the consumer society demands unthinking consumption - it'll happen again.

I don't know PDK, some houses survived because they were designed the right way. Architects are at the sharp end and generally well paid for what they do, if they can't get it right then who can we rely on? Engineers and Architects are supposed to be some of the best minds but it seems to me there has been a bowing out to the dollar. That isn't a technical problem, but as you point out more of a moral problem. You don't have to take the customers money if they won't listen to sense.
   I don't imagine the technical side of the training was so good when John did his qualification, but I don't see that as an excuse. But I am guilty of making this personal when my comments would be better directed to the profession in general.

True.
 
It can be a bit Catch-22, though. Architect has mortgage, only game in town is to design no-eave house in wet climate, design house for area prone to liquefaction but which some developer pushed some Council some time in the past (were any 'open-up-the-fringes slash no-government types involved in that, I wonder?) to approve, etc. At what point does the obligation override the moral revulsion?

Isn't some of the problem a result of "supermarket houses"

It is a very good question for you to ask where the boundary is, how does a professional know? Perhaps a year three paper for all professional courses should be "morals and ethics". I would be a mandatory paper for anyone taking a salary funded by the taxpayer as well. I have certainly had the training.

Architect designs house, supermarket builder adds to portfolio, customer selects off the shelf. Architect never inspects the location it will be erected on, never has the opportunity to ask for engineers opinion.

This website explains the roots of the problem.
www.chchsolddownthwriver.co.nz
Here is a Presentation for the CERA Community Forum.
http://issuu.com/brightsidepublishing/docs/repairfmafinal_2
Please Share

Very informative.  Just to ensure I understand, initially the government talked of land remediation for those areas not red zoned. Finding this impractical - in concert with insurers - they dreamed up the 'no building consents needed' approach.  Is that right?

This is the correct link.
http://www.chchsolddowntheriver.co.nz/
Kate, that is exactly correct. Cash settleing people on destroyed land is cheaper than red zoning the area. Some parts of TC3 will never be buildable due to the 50year guarantee Council needs to give on consented foundations. As we are so close to 9 faultlines (within 20K) the ground needs to be 20% stronger than in other parts of the country.
In my oppinion the governent should take the responsible approach of managed retreat and either relocate or write off the properties on the worst affected TC3 land.

Thanks again Hugo.  On the website you refer to the Consumer Protection Act - whereas I think you mean the Consumer Guarantees Act 1993 - found here;
 
http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1993/0091/latest/DLM311053.html?src=qs
 
I note the folks at Consumer Affairs "kicked for touch" and forwarded your query on to the very officials who you are complaining about - that division of MBIE who is directly responsible for preparing those amendments to the Building Act.
 
Best of luck with the very worthwhile campaign.