Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission Te Komihana Rūwhenua o Waitaha Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission – Te Komihana Rūwhenua o Waitaha

Those who lost relatives and friends in the 22 February earthquake can be assured that there will be a very thorough inquiry into the failure of buildings that resulted in loss of life.
Chair, Justice Mark Cooper

Interim Report Section 2: Inquiry Process and Progress

2.1 Issues arising under the Terms of Reference

The principal issues that must be addressed by the Royal Commission under the Terms of Reference may be grouped under the following headings:

  • Seismicity. This is a shorthand reference to the nature and extent of earthquake risk that should be provided for in the construction and maintenance of buildings. The Royal Commission must address these issues both for New Zealand generally, and for Christchurch. The Terms of Reference require the Royal Commission to understand the nature and severity of the Canterbury earthquakes, and the susceptibility of land to liquefaction as a result of earthquakes.
  • Consideration of a representative sample of buildings in the Christchurch Central Business District (CBD). The Royal Commission is directed by the Terms of Reference that the representative sample must include the CTV, PGC, Forsyth Barr and Hotel Grand Chancellor buildings. It is for the Royal Commission to determine what other buildings it will consider, having regard to its obligations to consider why some buildings failed severely, why the failure of some caused extensive injury and death, why buildings differed in the extent to which they failed, and why some did not fail. Under this heading, the Royal Commission is also investigating the subsurface conditions in the CBD, particular features of buildings that contributed to failures, the extent of compliance of the buildings with relevant building controls and the inspection and remediation processes followed after the 4 September and 26 December 2010 and 22 February 2011 earthquakes.
  • Legal and best-practice requirements for the design, construction and maintenance of buildings, including those that are or should be considered as earthquake-prone. This will also include the existing and desirable form of legislative provision for the inspection of buildings and remedial actions following earthquakes, having regard to the lessons learned from the Canterbury earthquakes. The Royal Commission is also considering the respective roles of central and local government, the building and construction industry and the significant inputs of volunteers (in the drafting and amendment of relevant New Zealand standards) in developing and enforcing legal and best-practice requirements.
  • Change of New Zealand design standards/codes of practice over time and appropriate future controls for new and existing buildings.
  • Development of technical expertise in the design and construction of seismic-resistant buildings.

 2.2 The Royal Commission's approach to the issues arising

The Royal Commission has developed and is implementing an approach to its investigation of the principal issues, which has the elements discussed below.

The approach reflects the breadth of the investigation required by the Terms of Reference, and the fact that, unlike some other investigations that have been referred to commissions of inquiry, this Inquiry is not one that could sensibly be conducted simply by inviting submissions from interested parties, considering what they might be prepared to tell the Commission (supplemented by appropriate questioning by counsel assisting) and make findings based solely on the evidence given at a hearing. That approach would risk some relevant issues being covered incompletely, or even not at all. There would be a risk also that the Royal Commission would not be presented with differing opinions on some important issues, because in the absence of clear disputes (arising plainly or by necessary implication from the Terms of Reference itself) persons having rival opinions might not be aware of what others were saying to the Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission has accordingly set out to ensure that it receives, as far as possible, appropriate advice on all of the relevant issues. On the principal issues that it has identified (discussed in Section 2.1), the Royal Commission:

(a) has commissioned advice from people and organisations within New Zealand who have appropriate expertise.
The advisors contracted to date are listed in Appendix 2;

(b) has adopted and is implementing a policy that the advice received will generally be peer reviewed by eminent overseas experts. The peer reviewers contracted to date are set out in Appendix 2;

(c) is publishing on the Royal Commission’s website the advice received under (a) and (b);

(d) has called for expressions of interest in relation to each of the identified principal issues;

(e) in relation to each of the issues, is identifying persons or organisations who, while not filing expressions of interest, are nevertheless likely to have information that will assist the work of the Royal Commission;

(f) is calling for evidence and submissions on the principal issues both from those who have lodged expressions of interest and those others whom the Royal Commission considers will have relevant contributions to make;

(g) will publish on its website the evidence and submissions it receives in relation to the principal issues;

(h) will conduct hearings, and hear evidence on the issues as appropriate.

The approach outlined brings most aspects of the Inquiry into line with the approach that is required in relation to the four named buildings in the representative sample of buildings in the Christchurch CBD. In the case of those buildings, the Terms of Reference envisage that the Royal Commission will receive and take into account the results of the separate technical investigation being conducted by the Department of Building and Housing (DBH) into the failure of the CTV, PGC, Forsyth Barr and Hotel Grand Chancellor buildings. The DBH has instructed consultants to report on the failure of each of those buildings, and will also receive a report from an expert panel appointed to review the consultants’ reports. The Royal Commission intends to publish these reports on its website as well as seeking its own advice on them. While the Royal Commission expects that the results of the DBH technical investigation will be of significant assistance to it, it will be forming its own views, and the results of the technical investigation will be contestable in the Royal Commission’s hearings process. In the meantime, the Royal Commission’s Inquiry into the failure of those buildings is underway, and the Royal Commission has appointed an eminent structural engineer from San Francisco, Mr William T. Holmes, to assist with that and other aspects of its Inquiry.

2.3 Department of Building and Housing technical investigation – timing

When the DBH technical investigation was established, it was announced that the results would be available by 31 July 2011. However, that has proved to be overly optimistic. As at the date of this report the consultants’ and panel reports have only recently been made available, and they have not covered the collapse of the CTV building. It is presently unclear when the results of the DBH technical investigation concerning the CTV building will be provided. These delays have inevitably had an effect on the Royal Commission’s processes.

In order for the results of the DBH technical investigation to be properly contestable in the Royal Commission’s own Inquiry the results will need to be available to interested parties for a period of time before any hearings before the Royal Commission occur. The interested parties will include those whose interests or reputations might be at risk as a result of conclusions that might be reached by the Royal Commission, as well as the bereaved families.

In considering its future hearings schedule the Royal Commission has recognised the need to take into account the availability of interested persons during the Christmas and New Year period.

Inability to schedule hearings on the four specified buildings has meant that the Royal Commission has also felt unable to schedule hearings in respect of other matters relevant to its Inquiry, which should logically occur after the hearings that focus on the reasons for the failure of those buildings. Such issues include the policies and practices that apply or should apply to the inspection of buildings after significant earthquakes, and the potential need for changes to the building controls that apply to the construction of new buildings.

The hearings in relation to these issues have not been scheduled at the time of writing this Interim Report.

2.4 Other buildings in the representative sample

The Royal Commission has adopted an approach to the consideration of other buildings as part of the “representative sample” referred to in the Terms of Reference, which stands somewhat apart from its approach to the other issues being addressed in the Inquiry.

Here the process followed has been to create a ‘long list’ of buildings of potential interest, considering such matters as structural design, construction type, building materials, building age and usage. The Royal Commission has decided also to consider prominent public buildings, which have attracted significant numbers of members of the public, as well as all the buildings whose failure has resulted in loss of life.

There were 42 deaths that resulted from building failures other than the collapse of the CTV and PGC buildings. In summary, the Royal Commission has decided that the Inquiry will include:

  • any building within the CBD that failed causing loss of life, including The Press building in Cathedral Square, the Methodist Church on Durham Street, as well as numerous commercial premises on Colombo, Cashel, Gloucester, Hereford, High, Lichfield and Manchester streets; and
  • any other building which failed causing loss of life including commercial premises on Riccarton Road in Riccarton, Coleridge Street in Sydenham, Worcester Street in Linwood and a residential property in St Albans.

The long list, in addition to the buildings described above, includes buildings that:

  • withstood the Canterbury earthquakes;
  • allow determination of the effectiveness of both damage assessments made and remedial work carried out between the 4 September 2010 and the 22 February 2011 Canterbury earthquakes;
  • are of different structural types and forms;
  • are of different construction materials;
  • have different design and safety features including escape routes, such as stairs;
  • have different dates of design and construction, including heritage buildings;
  • had been retro-fitted prior to 22 February 2011 to improve earthquake resistance;
  • had been identified as ‘earthquake-prone’ or ‘potentially earthquake-prone’ on or before 4 September 2010;
  • have different foundation types and underlying soils;
  • have different types of usage; and
  • are of key public interest.

It will be appreciated that many engineering reports have been prepared, or are in the course of preparation, surveying the state of buildings in the CBD since the 4 September earthquake. The long list has been provided to most of the engineering consultancies operating in Christchurch with the request that they provide information in their possession relating to the buildings on the list, as well as advice as to the interests connected with the buildings. The Royal Commission is seeking the cooperation of the building owners. It has also approached insurance companies to obtain copies of reports of building damage that they have received. In this process the Royal Commission has been able to refer to its powers to require the provision of information under the Commission of Inquiry Act 1908, but there has generally been cooperation without the need to insist. The Royal Commission has also secured the cooperation of Christchurch City Council in providing relevant material (plans, specifications and calculations, and building permits and consents) from its records.

The Royal Commission has employed the Wellington-based engineering consultancy, Spencer Holmes Ltd, to assist in the analysis of this material. It is in the course of refining the representative sample is developing a short list and is successively analysing the explanations for the performance of particular buildings. There will be a process in many cases that will involve discussions with the engineers that have provided reports and individual building owners. As presently advised, the Royal Commission considers that (while there may be some exceptions) it will not be necessary for public hearings to be held before arriving at conclusions explaining the performance of many of the buildings concerned. Such hearings as may be necessary will be scheduled for later in the Inquiry.

Most of the 42 deaths that are attributable to the failure of buildings other than the CTV and PGC buildings were the result of the collapse, in whole or in part, of URM buildings. These are being treated as a special group. It is plain from the Royal Commission’s investigations to date that most of these building failures will have common attributes, reflecting the inability of such buildings to withstand the ground movements caused by the earthquakes. In such cases, the major focus of any hearings is likely to be issues that arise from the inspection processes followed after the 4 September and 26 December 2010 events.

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