02 February 2015

Engineer fined for designing to 70 per cent of code

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This article originally appeared in Engineering Dimension in February 2015.

In 2001, Robert Cecil (Bob) Hall MIPENZ designed some offices for Gisborne District Council at 15 Fitzherbert Street, Gisborne. Ten years later, engineers assessed the seismic performance of all the buildings making up the Council’s complex at Fitzherbert Street. This assessment assigned a rating of 28 per cent of the New Building Standard to the building designed by Mr Hall. A second opinion generally confirmed the first assessment to be at an even lower rating of 23 per cent. The building is currently disused.

The Council complained to IPENZ on the basis that it expected a building designed in 2001 to perform to a higher standard. Throughout the investigation, Mr Hall consistently stated he considered the 2011 assessment commissioned to be too conservative, and that the building was not earthquake-prone (as defined by the Building Act).

Mr Hall argued that the building was designed for a structural ductility factor (μ) of three, with the required energy dissipation achieved through rocking foundations.

The Investigating Committee (IC) noted that Mr Hall’s calculations adopted a ductility of three when calculating the design loading. However, the use of rocking for energy dissipation at this ductility level was permitted by the loadings code at the time (NZS 4203:1992) only in conjunction with a special study. No evidence was presented by Mr Hall to indicate such a special study was carried out. Rocking foundations were allowed by NZS 4203:1992 for μ of 2.0 or less, a fact Mr Hall relied on quite heavily in his submissions, although this is not referred to in his contemporaneous calculations. The IC noted that the current loadings code (AS/NZS 1170: 2002) is more restrictive.

The building was designed prior to the Chartered Professional Engineers of New Zealand Act 2002, so the Disciplinary Committee (DC) was only able to consider the complaint in regard to the IPENZ jurisdiction. The original design only met 70 per cent of the seismic resistance requirements of the Building Code applicable at the time it was designed.

As such, Mr Hall’s engineering work fell well short of the standard required and he failed to exercise the amount of care and skill required for a professional engineer of his training and experience. On that basis, the DC concluded that Mr Hall failed to meet the requirements of IPENZ Rule 4.3 as well as clause 70 of the IPENZ Regulations for Competence Registers because he failed to “perform his engineering activities in a careful and competent manner”. The DC concluded that these matters were of sufficient gravity to warrant Mr Hall being disciplined under the provisions of IPENZ Rule 11.

The DC noted that the complainant was concerned Mr Hall was also responsible for the design of an apartment building in Gisborne that suffered damage in the 2007 Gisborne earthquake. This collapse was the subject of a previous disciplinary hearing in 2011. On that occasion, the DC decided that Mr Hall “had acted in contravention of the obligation that a Member must perform his/her engineering activities in a careful and competent manner, commensurate with his/her standing in the Institution”. Mr Hall was admonished but no costs were ordered and his name wasn’t published. This is relevant to the consideration of penalty only.

While the Chair made it clear the charges were made out, the Committee found the misconduct to be at the lower end of the scale. It also noted the building was unlikely to collapse in a moderate earthquake. Mr Hall was fined $1,500 and asked to contribute $6,000 in costs incurred by the Institution. It also ordered that a summary of the DC’s decision including Mr Hall’s name and the nature of the breach be published in the official journal and website of the Institution, and copies provided to newspapers circulating in the Gisborne district.

Read the full determination (PDF 72KB)