Residents of a Tauranga subdivision are still waiting – waiting for homes to be fixed; waiting for the next round of inspections; waiting for word from Tauranga City Council staff about when they can return to their neighbourhood. Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken spoke with homeowners, the developer, council staff and experts in the building industry about why things at Bella Vista in The Lakes went so wrong and found blame, shame – and bonding.
Homes and heartbreak
A tall chain link fence surrounds a block of home sites on Lakes Boulevard in Pyes Pa.
Some houses are finished and landscaped – with furniture inside, flower boxes outside.
Other properties wear building wraps emblazoned with the logo of the development company that went into liquidation late last year – Bella Vista Homes.
Security guards stand watch in front of rippled slopes of dirt where plastic pipes snake from the top of one hill down to the footpath.
Signs from Tauranga City Council have been zip-tied to the fence. "Notice not to approach dangerous buildings," they warn.
A situation that had been brewing for months, perhaps years, erupted last Friday when council staff evacuated 13 families. Twenty-one properties were affected.
Council executives said they were concerned ex-Cyclone Hola could tear apart improperly-built houses, and an unretained slope was at risk of falling.
The storm Monday dropped heavy rain, but buildings and banks remain. Residents, some of whom had a code compliance certificate for their homes, are still shut out. Council staff said it could take two weeks to assess whether homes are safe to occupy.
Andre Stewart's house is half-done. He and his family – wife, Chloe, and two children, 2-and-a-half-year-old Miela and 7-month-old Asher, are living with friends.
They bought their house and land in mid-2016 from Bella Vista Homes.
"They had an affordable home in a beautiful area."
Stewart said it took a year for the council to grant building consent.
Work started in September 2017. The developer went into liquidation in late November.
Stewart said before that, the council required repeated reports about retaining walls – his wall was mid-construction when the evacuation order was issued and work stopped.
"There's been three different geotechnical reports during that time and now one report says it's unsafe."
Stewart said the neighbourhood looked no different after the storm. "We're not worried our house is gonna go down the bank."
He is worried, though, homes he said "got ticked off" months ago by council inspectors have only recently been found to have significant faults such as missing bolts and nails.
"There's something we're not being told. We believe the cyclone was used to move this forward."
Stewart and other homeowners have spent $500 each on a survey report and face thousands of extra dollars to hire an engineer to work with retaining walls specialists.
"We do believe Bella Vista is at fault for where we're at, but we don't believe they're solely responsible."
Stewart, like other homeowners, is paying a mortgage and rates for a home that, for now, he's not allowed to finish.
Jenny and Damian Coffey said they moved into their home with a full code compliance certificate in December 2016.
They had shifted from Greerton into their 'dream home,' a three bedroom, two bathroom property atop a hill.
"We worked really hard to get where we are and it's being potentially taken away from us."
Their parents helped manicure the garden. They enjoyed a subdivision with trails and reserves where they could walk their four dogs.
Today, the dogs are kennelled and the Coffeys have shuffled from one motel to another, in search of a place they can cook.
Tauranga City Council has said it will meet costs of temporary accommodation and out-of-pocket expenses.
"You buy your own home, think you get full code of compliance and everything's okay and then the rug's taken right out from under our feet . . . all of our money is tied up in those houses. We're homeless. This is embarrassing to have to rely on the community and the generosity of other people to survive."
Coffey's a clinical nurse manager. Her husband's a tutor. They're grateful for the support, but don't understand why council allowed them to move into their home in the first place.
"They've known about this wall and retaining issue since a month before we moved into our house…it just makes you lose complete confidence."
Coffey said while her home does not need a retaining wall, those behind her do. It's the same for all 21 homes in the area – whatever happens on one property affects everyone else.
"Why wasn't the retaining wall done first?"
Degen Prodger is another homeowner moving from one set of temporary digs to another.
We reached him by phone at Cutter's Cove in the Mount, but he and his family were about to move to Atlas Apartments. Prodger said shifting and uncertainty were draining.
"It's put a strain on our family, marriage, work-life . . . until there's some closure, we're having to deal with that stress."
Prodger is married with an 8-year-old daughter. He said his house had final council sign-off, and he and his family had been living there a year without problems – until last Friday.
"We've done everything we need to do . . . it's frustrating because it's out of our hands."
He and other homeowners are considering legal action.
"The hard thing is, we just don't want it to be more stress on ourselves, because we've had enough stress as it is."
A group of about 30 owners and occupiers in the area at the end of Lakes Boulevard gathered at Tauranga City Council's chambers Tuesday night to hear more about building and earthworks issues.
Experts engaged by council revealed many problems were "far worse than first thought."
BCD group civil engineering manager Colin Jacobson said he was asked last week to urgently undertake a review of 16 dwellings in Lakes Boulevard and Aneta Way.
His inspection of three unlined properties – at 303a, 305 and 309a found all unsafe.
Structural defects included incorrectly installed roof bracing fixings and lack of bottom plate fixings under load-bearing walls.
Jacobson said the buildings were dangerous and urgent repairs were necessary, which took three days to complete.
"In my 30-odd years as an engineering professional, I've never seen such poor workmanship."
AECOM principal geotechnical engineer Mike Trigger said foundation slabs of some houses could be seen on top of eroding landfill, and large cracks in the fill could mean deeper problems underneath.
His report dated March 9 found emergency works installed prior to Cyclone Gita were ineffective at controlling water.
"The site currently has multiple scour channels, piping and gully erosion."
The report also said Worksafe would not allow the council's contractor to access a slope below 5 Aneta Way before Gita.
Trigger recommended temporary evacuation of residents before ex-Cyclone Hola, as per section 129 of the Building Act. His report said while past performance of slopes can be a guide to future behaviour, it's not always the case.
"Hence why slips can occur on slopes that have been stable for many years."
During question time of the hour-and-a-half meeting, one tearful resident said he had worked seven days a week to buy his home, moving from Christchurch.
"After what I just have heard, I no longer feel safe in my own home. We saw buying in Tauranga as living the dream and now our dream is shattered."
Another resident said he took council's reassurances with "a grain of salt" and called for engineering reports to be peer-reviewed.
Tauranga City Council chief executive Gary Poole presided over the meeting with homeowners which was videotaped and attended by Mayor Greg Brownless and Councillor Larry Baldock.
Poole told residents he empathised with them.
"We're trying our best to get as quick as possible a resolution to the issues you face."
He said the team would be well-resourced so their work wouldn't be held up. "We need to make sure it's fixed right this time."
Earlier, Poole said the absence of retaining walls was brought to the attention of builders and Bella Vista "many, many times," but the council was assured walls would be built after construction.
Then the company went into liquidation.
Poole said council could not demand a "certain sequencing of the building process."
He said after this situation is resolved, the council may be in a position to recommend to appropriate authorities that the Building Act does contain the ability for a regulator such as a council to dictate the sequence of building activity.
Four of the 21 Bella Vista homes had code compliance certificates issued. However, council staff said none of these building consents required a retaining wall to be constructed to retain the cut slope.
Council general manager for the chief executive's group Kirsty Downey said fortunately, Cyclone Hola didn't hit with the intensity forecast.
"But it could have and we took that risk seriously . . . At this point, we can't provide a definitive timeframe on how long residents need to be away from their properties."
In response to emailed questions Wednesday, she said engineers had been on site that day and would be back for most of the week making further assessments. The timing of access was likely to be different for each family.
At Tuesday night's meeting, Downey said she and her team were "absolutely committed" to working with residents and the team of technical experts to find the best solutions.
"There are lessons to be learned here. This is not the time to lay blame," she said.
Former Bella Vista director Danny Cancian disagrees.
He blames the council for his company's woes and for homeowners' heartbreak, too.
Cancian told the Bay of Plenty Times he tried to finish homes affected by the evacuation order but claimed he faced roadblocks dealing with the city council.
"We tried to finish everything. Absolutely 100 per cent tried to finish it and council just wouldn't let us go ahead, they just wouldn't let us get traction."
Cancian said Bella Vista had building consents to build the homes but were constantly getting request for information (RFI) letters from council.
He said Worksafe came in and shut them down. A Worksafe spokeswoman disputes that.
She said, "Our prohibition notices on Bella Vista Homes Limited related to two specific issues – scaffolding and the dangerous excavation of a trench and did not prevent any other work being undertaken, despite Bella Vista's claims to the contrary. Since then the council has closed down the site and their decision stops any work being done on the site."
One point on which Cancian and the council concur is retaining walls were not required as a first step. In fact, he said walls weren't in his contracts at all.
"We sold house and land packages. It was just one big hillside." He said a geotechnical engineer told him there was nothing wrong with the banks.
"They would crumble, but never, ever fall down."
Cancian sent us Tauranga City Council reports from September and October 2017 for three buildings in question (303a, 305, 309a, Lakes Boulevard) showing all but one house received an inspection outcome of "PASS." Project descriptions included "erect dwelling and retaining wall".
The inspection that failed, at 303a, showed joist hangars and cantilever joists were not fixed. Other issues that got a "FAIL" at the property were prepour, floor slab, external tanking and framing/prewrap.
Many items on those inspection lists had yet to be ticked off.
Cancian told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend he's considering filing for bankruptcy and considering filing legal action against the council.
"I have no choice. I need to pay all these people back that are out of pocket . . . I will do that."
Cancian said he has "got his apron on," and is working as a labourer.
"I've lost everything as well . . . I employed the wrong people and at the end of the day I'm responsible.
"It has nothing to do with me…I haven't set up any new building companies and I'm not going to set up any new building companies because I can't build houses with Tauranga City Council."
Meanwhile, the liquidator who has taken over the case is investigating a series of transactions of "significant value" connected to Cancian .
The first liquidator's report in November found Bella Vista Homes went into liquidation leaving behind 30 unfinished houses and owing at least $4.35 million to 95 creditors.
Blind eyes and best practices
The Bay of Plenty Times Weekend spoke with experts in the home building industry, some of whom are connected to this case.
Leon Styles, who owns Tauranga Retaining Walls and Fences, has been hired by homeowners to finish building retaining walls – as soon as he can access the site.
"The reality is, we can build them in three weeks if council does what is says it'll do and help the homeowners and speed the process."
Styles said contrary to what council staff have said, there were consented plans for retaining walls.
"Council won't accept that. They've made homeowners go back through the engineering process."
He said it's unusual to allow homes to be built before retaining walls, and though council has said it doesn't have the power to stop builders, they do, in fact, inspect each step of the building process, starting with earthworks before the foundation slab gets a tick.
"Worksafe says as long as you abide by the correct methodology, it's stable. Council is the only ones saying it's not stable. They should have said this 16 months ago…Council's supposed to guide us…for whatever reason on that project they turned a blind eye."
Craig Manktelow is a consulting engineer hired by homeowners.
He, too, has only recently stepped into the issue.
Manktelow said consent for retaining walls was issued, but the staging of work was such that walls originally proposed couldn't be built because construction progressed at different rates. He said residents aren't dealing with one retaining wall, but 16.
"There's a disconnect between what was consented and what was actually done . . . for some reason, the whole system has fallen down and we've arrived at where we've arrived . . . obviously, Bella Vista's management of the whole process has to be questioned . . . however, there needs to be appropriate checks in place as construction progresses. The question needs to be asked, was appropriate monitoring in place?"
Manktelow said it would have been logical to build retaining walls before homes. "Why that basic philosophy wasn't adhered to, I can't say."
Geotechnical engineer Tony Fairclough, chairman of the NZ Geotechnical Society (who's not connected to this case) agrees with other professionals it's best practice retaining walls go in before building starts.
In most jobs, he said a geotechnical engineer will work with a project manager and developer to design a time when earthworks are done, then retaining.
"You have to be careful you don't take a piece of heavy equipment up a driveway before the walls are in place. Council would be relying on the developer and the project manager and engineer to make sure the sequence is done right."
But he said that doesn't always happen.
"If finances are tight, sometimes a developer tries to do a bit of project management himself. Unfortunately, they don't know what they don't know and they get into a bit of trouble."
Fairclough said the council has done the right thing by getting experts in and doing inspections. He was impressed they had organised temporary accommodation.
"I've heard of other situations where people were told they had to evacuate and were told to sort themselves out."
Chief executive of consumer advocacy group Home Owners and Buyers Association Roger Levie expressed a similar opinion to other experts we interviewed about this case.
"The thing that amazed me about that development is they were able to put up those properties without building a retaining wall. Council said they couldn't influence the sequencing and I found that very strange."
Levie said councils have been careful not to overstep following a long line of litigation.
"Over the period where we were dealing with leaky and defective properties, councils were the last person standing."
He recommended people building homes purchase an independent insurance policy, priced at around one per cent of construction cost.
"The other part that's missing is quality assurance. There's no really good solid QA-type processes being used or required . . . it's allowing poor construction to occur and buildings to get a long way down the track, and often defects aren't found at all until the building is completed."
Another danger, he said, is it's common practice for developers to change a company name and strip assets from the original company. "So if an issue arises, the party you would pursue has no assets."
Residents band together
One Bella Vista homeowner, who asked not to be named, has been acting as unofficial, unpaid project manager (we'll call her PM).
PM said she received a notice to fix her own property from the council in December.
She said they also wanted homeowners to hire a project manager which would have cost $5000 per property.
"I was struggling to get people to pay $500," she said. So instead of hiring someone, she stepped in, spending around 200 hours on the issue so far. She estimates it'll take $100,000 to fix defects at her home.
"It's a personal cost to me and my family. My time. It's huge. It's not a matter of pointing fingers, it's a matter of moving forward and figuring out how to get out of this mess. Council is more concerned about saying they haven't done anything wrong than letting us get on and fix it."
Resident Jenny Coffey said she's glad the council is housing displaced homeowners, but it's frustrating staring at unknowns: Will her property be safe to live in? When can she and her husband return? How long must they live apart from their dogs?
"My normal four de-stressers are stuck in kennels. It was heartbreaking to have to walk away from them. You can't explain to four dogs who are so excited to see you, 'We can't take you home right now.'"
"We're paying a mortgage and rates on a home we can't live in. We're stuck in a studio motel with no privacy, no space. It's taking its toll on both of us."
Mark Graham runs the website builderreviews.co.nz.
He also publishes building guides and magazines for consumers and builders.
Graham said few complaints are filed against licensed building practioners (LBPs – see chart) compared with satisfaction surveys showing around 20 per cent of new home buyers were less than happy with their build.
The BRANZ (Building Research Institute of New Zealand) New Owners Satisfaction 2016 survey showed 16 per cent of respondents had low levels of satisfaction.
Graham said: "The building industry is a mess. Consumers . . . all too often abdicate all responsibility to their building professionals and often that is a disaster."
He said by law, consumers must receive a prescribed checklist from their builder, "but research we did about 18 months ago showed fewer than half of customers had received it."
Registered Master Builders representative Johnny Calley said there are many ways consumers can check out a building company or developer.
"Firstly, look into the history of the company and validate its previous experience in the industry. A very simple tool is to speak with previous clients or purchasers as this will give actual feedback and may raise any concerns. The building and development industry is a competitive commercial space so deals that are a lot cheaper relative to the rest of the market should be well researched."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmOY4j8vK9I&feature=youtu.be (TCC meeting 13 March)