What we're doing to improve the safety of our buildings

OPINION: There's a regular flow of stories in the media about construction issues. The engineering profession takes public safety and its reputation seriously, so these stories concern us.

And while engineering issues are just part of a bigger story, they are something we are facing into.

We constantly get asked how widespread the problem is, and what we are doing about it. These are fair questions. In terms of "how widespread?", there's a lot of anecdotal information but no clear, hard data. In terms of what are we doing, the answer is "a lot".

The sign of a healthy profession is one that doesn't shy away from things that go wrong - whether they relate to quality, competency, standards or accountability. We know our members are deeply committed to understanding any issues, learning from them and taking action to fix gaps or raise the bar.

It's also important to remember the vast majority of our engineers understand the enormous responsibility of their roles. Their work is rigorous, robust and gold standard. New Zealand has some of the best engineers in the world.

Hundreds of major buildings have been found to have defective or missing concrete or reinforcing steel.
SCREENSHOT/RNZ Hundreds of major buildings have been found to have defective or missing concrete or reinforcing steel.

But we are seeing some systemic issues, from design through to delivery. These have emerged as part of an inquiry we are carrying out.

The catalyst was our investigation into alleged engineering issues in six Masterton buildings. After we received some assessments around these buildings, we decided to take action in two ways.

First, we started an investigation into whether the chartered professional engineers who designed the six buildings provided engineering services in accordance with accepted standards.

And second, we launched a broader inquiry to consider wider system issues, initially with respect to what we learned from the Masterton buildings but later expanded.

Both processes - the disciplinary ones and the inquiry - are in their final stages. This is the first time we have done this type of inquiry, and three clear themes are emerging.

Dr Maan Alkaisi, whose wife was killed in the CTV building collapse in 2011, has campaigned for accountability over the engineering of the building. He spoke to media before attending an earlier court hearing. (File video)

First, with so many players in a building system (engineers, architects, project managers, contractors, subcontractors, consenting authorities and more) there are multiple opportunities for miscommunication - particularly if relationships have broken down - which leads to mistakes.

Second, some basic mistakes in design aren't being picked up through the process.

And third, standard engineering details are sometimes being used when specific engineering is needed.

All three of these findings point to the critical importance of checks and balances. Mistakes are going to be made; what's important is that they are picked up before they find their way into a building or structure.

This means consistent and rigorous quality assurance, peer review and construction monitoring are essential. Thought is also being given to a process for auditing engineering design, to give us better data on problems.

The final inquiry report will include a series of recommendations: some for the engineering community, but also some for other players in the system.

We're not the only ones with this view. Industry broadly agrees and is saying similar things, including that we need to work together. We want our report to support and inform this broader work, and the good work that's already happening, like the Construction Accord.

For engineering and engineers, another critical lever is getting the regulatory framework right. That's why we are advocating for licensing of safety-critical engineering work, which would mean that, for certain work, engineers need a licence overseen by an independent body.

At the moment there is no mandatory accountability system for engineers. That needs to change to better protect public safety. We are working closely with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and our technical groups, on the best options for this regulatory framework.

Getting regulation right will help in other ways too. For example, right now we can't restrict an engineer's practice pending a disciplinary process or a competency reassessment, even if we have serious concerns.

Susan Freeman-Greene, chief executive of Engineering New Zealand: "The sign of a healthy profession is one that doesn't shy away from things that go wrong."
Susan Freeman-Greene, chief executive of Engineering New Zealand: "The sign of a healthy profession is one that doesn't shy away from things that go wrong."

The shadow of the CTV building tragedy sits with us daily. We've made many changes since. We've rewritten our rules so that engineers can't resign to escape accountability; strengthened our code of ethical conduct by placing clear responsibility on engineers to report things they see that might cause harm; reformed our complaints and disciplinary process; and more.

If you are reading this as a member of the public, our advice is twofold. If you are using an engineer, check they are a member of Engineering New Zealand or a chartered professional engineer. Unless they are, there is no way to hold them to account.

And if you are worried about your building, please get it assessed by an appropriately qualified and experienced engineer.

If you are reading this as an engineer, remember no regulatory system will fix every single issue. Ultimately, every professional holds the reputation of their profession in their hands.

* Susan Freeman-Greene is chief executive of Engineering NZ.

The Dominion Post

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