Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

CTV inquiry: Engineer under 'huge pressure' to approve building

The collapsed CTV building. Photo / Geoff Sloan.
The collapsed CTV building. Photo / Geoff Sloan.

A council engineer who thought the CTV Building design was at risk to earthquakes signed it off under "huge pressure'' from his bosses, a hearing was told today.

Graeme Tapper was working in Christchurch City Council's building control unit in 1986 when local firm Alan Reay Consultants applied to have its six-storey design approved.

Mr Tapper, who died in 2004, signed the building off after fears he would lose his job if he didn't.

His widow Patricia today told a royal commission hearing into the CTV Building's collapse on February 22, 2011, killing 115 people, that he was "never happy'' with the concrete structure's design.

"He went on and on about the CTV Building,'' she said.

"At first I thought it was related to Alan Reay, where there was a personality clash. However, I soon realised that what he was unhappy about was the building itself.''

Her husband of 49 years never spoke at home about his civil engineering work, she said, but the exception was the ill-fated Madras St building.

"He was never happy with the building. His view was there were earthquake risks. It was not a question of if, but when.

"He told me he had not wanted to sign the building off at the council but was under huge pressure to sign it off by Brian Bluck who was above him in the council hierarchy. Graeme seemed concerned about his job.''

The royal commission earlier heard from a former council colleague of Mr Tapper who gave evidence that Dr Reay, principal of Alan Reay Consultants, didn't like "close scrutiny'' of his firm's building designs by council building control managers.

His company was a thriving practice when ex-employee John Henry worked at Christchurch City Council in the 1990s.

The structural engineer worked in the council's building control unit which issued building permits from 1992 to 1995.

He had previously worked for Dr Alan Reay's firm for one year, just before the CTV Building was designed in 1986, but left after becoming frustrated at being relegated to a "backroom'' role.

Today, Mr Henry said while working at the council, a lot of work came through from Alan Reay Consultants.

But the office often struggled to get Dr Reay to take on board their concerns over design plans.

"A number of technical disputes involving Alan Reay Consultants arose in the building control unit while I was employed there,'' Mr Henry said.

The concerns often sparked "heated arguments'' between his respected senior colleagues Mr Bluck and Mr Tapper.

Mr Henry said that Dr Reay would often bypass Mr Tapper and go straight to Mr Bluck to try and get building consent.

Today, the royal commission hearing was shown a letter from Mr Tapper to Dr Reay, dated August 27, 1986, which raised a number of concerns over documents for the CTV Building.

It also outlined issues over its structural design, including its fire rating and floor connections.

Under questioning from counsel assisting the commission, Stephen Mills QC, Mr Henry confirmed he would have shared the concerns raised by his former colleague Mr Tapper, who he rated as a competent, experience senior engineer.

The hearing continues.

Boss had 'tight control'

Earlier today, an engineer employed by the Christchurch design firm behind the ill-fated CTV Building described his former boss Alan Reay as being "very much in charge" of all design projects.

Alan Reay has faced a stern grilling over his claims he had very little to do with the design.

The principal of Alan Reay Consultants disputes evidence given by David Harding, one of his engineers who had little experience in designing multi-storey buildings, that he oversaw and signed off the Madras St building designs.

Dr Reay claims he spent just 1.5 hours on the building while Mr Harding, who was given "sole responsibility" of the CTV Building, put in more than 230 hours.

Mr Harding says his boss was far more hands on than that - a stance supported today by John Henry, a structural engineer employed by Alan Reay Consultants between 1984 and 1985, who said Dr Reay preferred to be work as the principal designer on every project his firm took on.

Mr Henry said Dr Reay preferred to be the principal consultant on all designs, taking "tight control" of the jobs, and was "very much in charge".

He said that meant he was relegated to a "backroom" structural engineer's role in the firm, which did not suit him and so he resigned after a year there.

Mr Henry had designed the multi-storey Landsborough House in Durham St, Christchurch while at Alan Reay Consultants.

After he left in late 1985, Dr Reay wanted its calculations to be used as a template for the CTV Building.

He passed them on to Mr Harding to follow the calculations.

Mr Harding claims he was never given any guidance or help from Dr Reay, who counters by saying he was never asked for any input and was confident in his workers abilities.

Today, Mr Henry said he was "surprised" the new employee Mr Harding was given the CTV job, as he had no experience in designing multi-storey buildings, or in the computer modelling system used at the company.

He was also concerned that Mr Harding would've had to follow his calculations because they did not include "sufficient detail for a first-time designer".

The shear wall design was also "significantly different" on the Landsborough House building.

Dr Reay was earlier critical of Mr Henry for not including all of his thought processes in his calculations.

But Mr Henry said that was not a fair observation because his calculations would have been clear to an experienced designer. On Wednesday, Dr Reay rejected claims by counsel assisting the commission, Stephen Mills QC that he was well-known in Christchurch for designing buildings that only met minimum building code standards.

Other employees of Alan Reay Consultants during the mid-1980s, will also give evidence to the hearing, which is now in its sixth week.


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