CLOSED: Parts of Merivale Mall were closed because of earthquake risk.
Engineers inspecting Christchurch's quake-hit buildings for damage are becoming increasingly cautious in their assessments for fear of litigation if they make a wrong call, building insiders say.
More buildings in the city will be shut down over the coming weeks because engineers are unwilling to guarantee their safety in the event of another major quake, the sources say.
In the past month several high-profile buildings in Christchurch, including a large section of upmarket Merivale Mall and the Carlton Court building on the corner of Bealey Ave and Papanui Road, have been cordoned off because engineers have raised concerns about their structural integrity.
A building industry insider said the reason so many buildings were being shut down now was because engineers had been spooked by the recent Royal Commission of Inquiry hearings during which members of their profession had come under fire from lawyers eager to apportion blame for building failures in the February 22 earthquake.
"The engineers after September 4 pitched in and did the best they could and now they feel they are being subjected to a trial of hindsight," the insider said.
"They feel they're the ones in the firing line and that the blame for what went wrong is falling on their shoulders, so a lot of them have gone very conservative and are shutting things down."
Commercial building owners in Christchurch have been asked by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) to engage engineers to complete detailed engineering evaluations of their properties so that the authority can get an accurate picture of which buildings in the city are earthquake prone.
So far it has received 179 completed evaluations but reports from more than 450 building owners remain outstanding.
A front-line engineer, who asked not to be named, said the task facing engineers working in Christchurch was unprecedented and many of his colleagues felt under enormous pressure.
"If we miss anything and we get another big quake and something goes wrong, then we're the ones who are going to be blamed so the pressure to get it right is huge," the engineer said.
"Nobody wants to make a wrong call, so yes, we are being cautious – maybe overly so in come cases – but what option do we have? We're not going to sign off a building as safe unless we're damn sure it is because it is our arses on the line."
Institute of Professional Engineers chief executive Dr Andrew Cleland said the work the engineers have been doing over the past year was emotionally and intellectually demanding, and often they were being asked to make critical decisions within very tight time-frames.
Engineers expected to come under scrutiny, but the concern of many in Christchurch was that the public did not fully appreciate the conditions they were working in.
"People need to understand the highly pressured environment they were working in and the speed they were asked to work at meant often there was simply not enough time to collect large amounts of information before they were expected to make judgments," Cleland said.
Sweet-shop owner Nat Cheyne accepts that safety comes first but questions the time it is taking to make decisions on the fate of some buildings. His Riccarton Rd business was one of five forced to close this month when an engineer working on behalf of a loss adjustor raised concerns with Cera. The building was yellow-stickered and Cheyne and the other tenants are now in "limbo land" while they wait to find out whether it will be issued with a red sticker and demolished.Since the two big quakes on December 23, around 20 additional buildings or commercial areas in Christchurch and the surrounding area have been either yellow or red-stickered as a result of assessments by engineers.
"I can understand their over-caution in what they are doing but they just need to make decisions quicker," Cheyne said.
Former Christchurch mayor Garry Moore worries the scrutiny engineers are under will have implications for the rebuild of the CBD. He fears they will take a very conservative approach to building design. "If we are not very careful Christchurch is going to be redesigned by lawyers and engineers."
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