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Engineer’s fine is ‘cold comfort’ for lands trust

Masterton Trust Lands Trust general manager Andrew Croskery. PHOTO/FILE

It’s taken five years, but Engineering NZ has issued a “negligent” engineer with a $3500 fine after his involvement with five earthquake-risk buildings in Masterton.

However, the small fine is a “slap in the face” to building owner Masterton Trust Lands Trust [MTLT], whose manager says the decision is a “failure for the building consent process”.

“Most importantly, it demonstrates that the industry cannot self-regulate,” MTLT manager Andrew Croskery said.

It was made public on Monday that Manawatu engineer Kevin O’Connor had been censured and fined for negligence relating to his involvement in signing PS1 producer statements for five Masterton buildings found to be “inadequate”.

By signing the producer statements, O’Connor was confirming his professional opinion that aspects of the buildings’ designs complied with the Building Code.

They were later found to be earthquake-risk.

Another engineer has been fined for his involvement in signing off a sixth design, also owned by the trust, and found to be inadequate.

In its decision, an Engineering NZ disciplinary committee found that O’Connor was “negligent not incompetent” in signing off designs that did not comply with the Building Code.

He was fined $3500 and asked to pay costs of $35,000 toward the $220,000 investigation.

The disciplinary committee said the engineer responsible for the sixth design had also “performed engineering services in a negligent manner”.

However, the matter appeared to be an isolated incident.

That engineer was ordered to pay a fine and costs totalling $8500.

MTLT manager Andrew Croskery said the decision was a failure for the building consent process, “a failure for those engineers who are competent, and a failure for the public of New Zealand”.

“The disciplinary committee found Kevin O’Connor negligent, not incompetent.

“That begs the question, ‘At what point does habitual negligence amount to incompetence?’, and also appears to imply that being an incompetent engineer is defendable if you can find a negligent one to sign off your work.

“I note that none of the design engineers have been subject to an investigation, and I assume they are still practising.”

Croskery said Kevin O’Connor and Associates [KOA], which is now in liquidation, was involved in designing 11 trust buildings, “all with structural problems”.

“In addition, between 2016 and today, Radio New Zealand has reported that 148 buildings in the Manawatu have been designed by KOA.

“Five of these had been identified as earthquake-prone by 2019, and a Beca study indicated that as many as two-thirds of the buildings – 100 – may not be compliant with the Building Code.

“Issues were also identified with a school building in Greytown and another in Taihape, both designed by KOA.”

Croskery said a key task for Engineering NZ was “protecting the public from poor building design”.

“They have not achieved that today.”

Engineering New Zealand chief executive Richard Templer said the inquiry was “involved and complex”, requiring six investigating committee reports, expert advice, and two final disciplinary committee decisions.”

“Engineers are central in the design of buildings.

“Now that the Masterton cases have closed, we are working with the Structural Engineering Society of New Zealand and others on a report identifying the main causes of structurally deficient buildings.

“This report will inform the profession of causes and make recommendations for quality improvements using the findings from our inquiry.”

He said engineers had been calling for stronger regulation for several years, and Engineering New Zealand welcomed the Ministry of Business, Employment and Innovation’s [MBIE] proposals for occupational regulation.

These proposals included mandatory registration for all practising engineers, as well as licensing for high-risk disciplines such as structural engineering.

New Zealand has no requirement for these.

Engineering New Zealand is the professional body for engineers and for regulating professional standards.

MBIE has regulatory authority over the building system and ultimate responsibility for public safety. “This investigation has shown there are gaps in the building system,” Templer said.

“We are working with engineers, technical groups, MBIE, building consenting authorities [such as councils], and others to address these.

“We are already providing practice documents, tools, and processes so that engineers and building consenting authorities have a common understanding of what ‘good’ looks like.”

He said Engineering NZ initiated this own-motion inquiry at “considerable cost to us”.

“This shows we are serious about following through where red flags are identified.”

Disciplinary committees are independent of Engineering New Zealand and comprise three senior engineers, a lawyer, and a consumer representative.

Local Democracy Reporting has tried to contact O’Connor for comment. – NZLDR

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