A building inspector allowed an Auckland hostel to pass an inspection despite its main fire doors being locked shut, documents obtained by the Herald reveal.
The bungle by the inspector, employed by a company which provides building warrant of fitness inspections, sparked a complaint from a senior Auckland Council staffer concerned by the basic and potentially fatal error.
The inspection firm told the Herald it never heard from the council and would have investigated had it known of the error. The council said it undertook an audit of the buildings the inspector had assessed but did not pursue enforcement action. The inspector no longer works for the company.
The case has sparked concern in the wake of the Loafers Lodge tragedy in Wellington, where several people perished after an alleged arson at the hostel.
It came to light in documents obtained from Auckland Council last year under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.
The council documents relate to Empire Apartments, two imposing linked grey towers in Whitaker Pl, off Symonds St and near several student hostels.
Empire is marketed as student accommodation, but it is available to rent for backpackers and other inner-city residents for long and short-term stays. The tenants are a mix of students and others.
It has been used for emergency housing in the past, and the building was used to house vulnerable people during Covid lockdowns.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Social Development said no emergency housing special needs grants have been provided for tenants to stay at Empire Apartments since May 2021.
On March 25, 2022 the building inspector, whose name is redacted in the documents, undertook Empire’s annual building warrant of fitness assessment.
He found 10 missing exit signs and two fire doors not latching, noting them as defects to be remedied.
Six days later, a Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) officer carried out a survey and noted ground floor exit doors on a fire escape route were locked.
They were fitted with simple key lock hardware, rather than an electronic system allowing them to be unlocked from the inside in case of an emergency.
“One set of locks is accessed from the inside [and] the other is accessed from the outside, making this a particularly dangerous and non-compliant arrangement,” the fire officer wrote.
The Building Code requires that doors should be able to be easily operated from the inside without a key or other security device in the event of a fire.
The fire officer later contacted Auckland Council’s Building Warrant of Fitness Compliance Team.
The fact the locked doors were missed by the company’s inspector drew the ire of Auckland Council senior compliance officer Peter Brahne, internal council emails show.
He laid a formal complaint about the inspector’s actions in May 2022 with the council staffer in charge of the registration list for IQPs (Independent Qualified Person - industry jargon for a building inspector).
Brahne asked the staffer to review the inspector’s actions.
“I have significant concerns that the IQP did not properly carry out inspections, particularly one as obvious or elementary as checking final fire exit doors,” Brahne wrote.
He said Empire Apartments’ management quickly fixed the issue once they were notified by the fire officer.
The company which employed the inspector said the inspector in question was no longer working for them.
“We have no record of the correspondence you attached ever being received by our company,” its chief executive said.
“We can only assume that the last email dated May 16, 2022 was the final piece of correspondence relating to this matter which remained between Fenz and the Auckland Council.”
If a complaint had been received, the company would have fully investigated at the time, the chief executive said.
“Regrettably, the IQP who inspected the premises in question is no longer employed by our company. If a complaint was to be received, we would be happy to make contact with that IQP and seek his support in establishing some facts.”
All its inspectors are members of the Association for Building Compliance and they receive ongoing training to ensure they are competent and professional, the chief executive said.
In response to questions from the Herald, Auckland Council field surveying manager Jeff Fahrenson said the council’s building inspectors carried out an audit of buildings where the inspector in question was involved in issuing building warrants of fitness.
Once this was completed, council staff contacted the inspector to request further documentation, by which point he was no longer employed by the company.
“At this stage, no enforcement action has been taken. However, we are continuing to monitor and audit any BWOFs [building warrants of fitness] this IQP is involved in,” Fahrenson said in a statement.
AUT construction management Professor John Tookey said the error was jarring in light of the fatal Loafers Lodge fire.
But Tookey said it needed to be seen in context, given it was picked up shortly afterwards by the fire officer.
“Yes, it’s an elementary check,” Tookey says.
“Is it concerning? Yes. Is it evidence of some sort of systematic [failure]? No. The system works because it was picked up subsequently.”
Tookey said one option for preventing the error in future could be using an app where the IQP had to take photographs of each part of the inspection.
He said the Building Code had evolved in response to catastrophic error, loss of life or destruction.
“In each instance, we make a measured advance against what is technically possible and what is realistically achievable within a reasonable cost basis.”
Empire Apartments’ management did not respond to a request for comment.