As repair work advances in the leaky building saga, breaches of fire safety rules are showing up as a hidden issue.

Widespread breaches of fire safety regulations are being discovered as multi-storey leaky apartments are pulled apart during weathertightness repairs.

The discovery of the fire safety faults is a second hit, adding months and millions of dollars to fixes for unwitting owners. The revelation raises concerns about how widespread the hidden problem may be.

It arises from a rash of shortcuts and shoddy work and a compliance system that was not fit for purpose.

The Home Owners and Buyers Association of NZ (Hobanz) suspects the majority of multi-storey apartment buildings built between 1995 and 2005 are probably non-compliant and never were.

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Most were ticked off by private certifiers who commonly didn't have insurance and liquidated their companies during the fallout of the leaky buildings disaster.

The association provided photographs from several complexes that illustrate faults.

One shows fire damage on a wall and structural steel that did not have the required protective paint.

"That was a fire waiting to happen," said Roger Levie, the association's chief executive.

"It is a defective building problem but because of the Government response to weathertightness, people have looked no further than fixing that. That set the tone, which was to look no further than the exterior."

Another issue is the shortcomings of the annual fire safety warrant of fitness checks by councils.

Because problems are hidden behind walls and in ceilings the checks involve little more than assessing fire alarms and exits.

One specialist leaky building remediation company has found similar issues in all of half a dozen multimillion-dollar Auckland jobs on apartment buildings built during this period.

A specialist involved in the work said: "What we are finding is that the required fire-rated materials or devices are either not there or are incomplete."

This included holes in fire-resistant walls, the absence of fire collars that expand with heat to seal cavities around pipes, and walls not built up to ceilings.

Another example was steel - which buckles under heat - not being coated with fire-resistant paint. The paint was used in only some places in one of the buildings.

"It's almost like they ran out," the specialist, who did not want to be named, said.

"This is the stuff that is meant to be checked. Thankfully we haven't had fatalities but the potential is there. That particular building had sprinklers, so it wasn't a life issue but it resulted in huge financial cost."

He said the public needed to know, particularly when allowing builders to certify their own work is currently being floated as an option for speeding consent and cutting red tape costs.

"That's why we are where we are. It failed, so why do it again?"

Hobanz, set up to support owners of leaky buildings, has shown representatives of Auckland Council, the Fire Service, and the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment's (MBIE) buildings systems performance group through some buildings. They are said to share the association's concerns but don't want to cause panic.

Private certifiers were allowed under changes to the Building Act in 1991, a time of deregulation. They had a direct relationship with the Department of Building and Housing (later rolled into MBIE), with the role of councils limited to record keeping.

"The result was that a blind eye seems to have been turned to important area of compliance," said Levie.

He believes it was hard not to conclude it was intentional. "You don't accidentally leave fire collars off. We are very concerned, more so than for the earthquake risk problem."

The association would like to see mandatory insurance backed by warranties.

"That should be the starting point. It shouldn't be about builders making money for themselves."

The Fire Protection Association warned six years ago of these problems in a report to the industry and regulators.

Failures were in all parts of what is called passive fire protection, including fire-rated beams, fire-rated walls and the requirements for penetrations to be sealed properly.

The frequency of the failings coming to light is increasing and the consequences cannot be under-estimated, executive director Keith Blind told the Herald.

"I think it is as significant as the leaky buildings position that we have experienced." He predicted more and more examples would be found as buildings were opened up.

"A lot of people won't want to hear that. The job had not been done properly around passive fire safety requirements. They just thought it was appropriate to bang a hole in a wall and push a cable or a pipe through and leave it."

The Fire Protection Association report is peppered with alarm bells: "significant concerns about the quality of passive fire protection", "alarming trends indicating widespread problems due to poor knowledge, application, systems and processes", "a large number of buildings in New Zealand would fall well short of the level of fire safety performance expected".

The report contains this sobering paragraph: "A single [fire] collar missing from a services penetration in a multi-storey building could lead to smoke and fire spread, resulting in multiple fatalities and significant property damage."

Blind's team is working with Branz on a set of instructions to cover new installations.

Auckland Council's head of building control, Ian McCormick, told the Herald the failings were "certainly of concern" as was the difficulty in predicting how widespread it is.

Part of the problem was passive fire safety systems were poorly understood by the industry and insufficient training was given at the time.

The Uptown apartments were found to have major structural defects once work to rectify the leaky building was under way. Photo / Dean Purcell, Nick Reed
The Uptown apartments were found to have major structural defects once work to rectify the leaky building was under way. Photo / Dean Purcell, Nick Reed

That these buildings gained consent suggested that in some cases inspectors relied on reports rather than checking for themselves, McCormick said.

Though council is under pressure from central Government to speed up the consenting process in response to Auckland's housing shortage, McCormick said this would not be at the expense of proper checks.

Bill Bennett chairs the body corporate of the 65-unit Uptown apartments in Eden Terrace and the 285-unit St Lukes Garden apartments. He regards the fire-safety failures as "fraudulent". "They have short-cut the building standards of the day. That's going much further than putting up some cladding that turned out not to be fit for purpose ... This actually can endanger lives.

"It is pretty evident that during this period there was very little quality control taking place."

The fire safety problems were discovered after Uptown was pulled apart to fix weathertightness issues, adding months and millions of dollars to the process.

And now the same flaws were being found at St Lukes Gardens. "It starts as a weathertight fix and then you find structural issues. It's not till you get the cladding off and start to look underneath that you discover the poor workmanship," said Bennett, 74, an investor who has managed major projects including the construction of power stations.

Another multi-storey apartment where owners are facing the same thing, is the 65-unit The Pulse in Grey Lynn.

These are examples of buildings that Hobanz and a private insurer are confident are being properly repaired.

Owners are nonetheless worried that their buildings may be stigmatised despite them doing a quality fix. Making The Pulse watertight and now fixing the passive fire safety issues had added "60 to 70 per cent" to the original cost of the apartments, said body corporate chairman Peter Dawson.

"For us and all of these other people, it is extremely distressing to go through, but the remediation will ensure that the building is up to the fire code as it exists now and as it should have been when it was built."

The cost for owners of Uptown are similar; the repair for that building has blown out from about $4 million to $6 million or more because of the discovery of the fire safety issues.

Owners were "pretty disillusioned", Bennett said.

"Everybody we could litigate against has either closed their business down or restarted under the same name but a different date [making it a separate legal entity]. Most of our owners are saying, 'how does the law protect us on this?'"

Current company law does not stop the phoenix situation of the same operators continuing unchecked using a separate entity.

Private certifiers operated from 1995 until 2005 when a change to the Building Act saw their demise.

This was a result of their inability to obtain insurance from about 2002, after weathertightness problems and associated liability issues began to emerge, MBIE chief engineer Mike Stannard told the Herald.

MBIE staff visited two of these buildings recently. "We were all disappointed with the quality of the building work," Stannard said.

"We understand the building owners' frustration, however Auckland Council is doing the right thing by requiring the problems to be fixed. We'd urge anyone who fears they may have the same problem to notify their council immediately - it is the council's responsibility to investigate and ensure the building is made compliant."

Stannard believed Auckland Council had not encountered many similar instances, but that when it had it involved buildings with weathertightness issues.

"This may well reflect the lower level of skills in the sector at the time these buildings were built." He said there had been "significant focus" since the 2004 Building Act reforms on building skills, and councils' compliance and monitoring practices had become a lot more robust.

Passive fire safety issues were currently the subject of two projects.

Stamford Insurance is insuring watertightness fixes for 20 jobs ranging from $7 million to $15 million, all of which had passive fire safety issues that had not been properly addressed, said director Duncan Colebrook.

Failing to comply with fire safety requirements would "surprise any right-thinking person", Colebrook said.

"You wouldn't expect builders, developers or, indeed, consent authorities to have over-looked safety issues." His company's warranty gave peace of mind that the repairs were done properly, he said.

Back at Uptown, Bennett says the fire safety issue has left him questioning the goodness of some of his fellow Kiwis.

This is unlike the leaky buildings issue which had multiple causes, he said. "New Zealanders, we have great improvisation abilities but I think in a number of cases if we see the chance to get away with something, we will do it."

What you can do

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment says any building owner worried about fire safety measures in their apartment should contact their council.

MBIE chief engineer Mike Stannard advises: "It is the council's responsibility to investigate and ensure the building is made compliant."

Wait-and-see lifestyle adds to stress

Chairman of Body Corporate of Uptown Apartments Bill Bennett stands with Uptown apartment owner, Jennifer Came in front of their faulty building. Photo / Nick Reed
Chairman of Body Corporate of Uptown Apartments Bill Bennett stands with Uptown apartment owner, Jennifer Came in front of their faulty building. Photo / Nick Reed

"I thought I was buying a quality penthouse apartment on the city fringe," says Jennifer Came, one of hundreds of apartment owners being hit twice in the pocket.

Fire safety failures are being revealed in many apartment buildings as they are pulled apart for weathertightness repairs.

The end result for the advertising account director is she will end up paying one-and-a-half times or more for her apartment in the Uptown complex in Eden Terrace.

This is despite her doing everything right when she bought her top-floor, north-facing unit in 2007. Aware that the 2002 building was built within the leaky construction era, she had a builder check it.

"We did a test, everything came back fine and so I went ahead with the purchase thinking nothing was wrong."

Weathertightness issues were first noticed in 2010 on the ends of the long, slim building where cladding now known to be defective was used. Other issues revealed themselves as investigations were made and when repairs began this year.

The latest hit is discovering a raft of non-compliant and potentially dangerous passive fire safety failings. The problems are being discovered in many multi-storey apartment buildings built between 1995 and 2005.

"It was a bit of a shock to find it was a leaky building. Then it was a matter of going through the motions of deciding what to do next. Then the fire-rating issue came into play. That was another shock."

Came paid $317,000 to buy her apartment and estimates she may end up paying up to two-thirds of that amount again. What grates is that the building never did meet the standards of the day but was certified as fit, she said.

As an owner-occupier she has had to find somewhere to live while the building is stripped and repaired.

"I moved out in April and I am on to my fourth place. I was initially told it would be three months, so I stayed with friends. Now I am on to flatting and I don't know how long I can stay there. It's been very stressful and you can't make plans.

"At this stage we don't have a final [completion] date. It's wait and see."

Property is supposed to be a smart move for creating wealth but she finds herself paying rent, a mortgage, leaky building repairs and now to fix fire safety failures.

"It is just upsetting to think that from the initial build that people are comfortable to live with themselves, because they would have known they hadn't done a correct job. And to think I'd been living for so many years with a building with so many issues once you peel away the outside of it, is actually quite frightening."

"The leak I almost could have dealt with. It's more the fire rating issue that has been frightening and has put the extra financial pressure and timing on us."

Though it currently seems like cold comfort, it helps her to know that they are going through the proper processes that should ensure they have a good and compliant building when all the work is done.