01 March 2014

Engineer’s Negligence led to Snow Storm Collapse

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This article appeared in Engineering Dimension in March 2014.

On Saturday 18 September 2010, Invercargill was hit by a big snowstorm, causing the roof of the Wren Building at 61 Yarrow Street to collapse.

Rule 55 allows the Registration Authority to inquire into any matter on its own motion if it has reason to believe that a Chartered Professional Engineer (CPEng) comes within any of the grounds for discipline set out in section 21 of the Chartered Professional Engineers of New Zealand Act 2002. 

During its inquiry, the investigating committee identified Nicholas Brown MIPENZ was the CPEng responsible for the design. Mr Brown is now a Director of Stevenson Brown Limited of Dunedin, although when he designed the Wren Building he worked for another consultancy. 

Soon after it was appointed, the investigating committee decided to delay its inquiry under Rule 64 until the civil proceedings had been resolved. Rule 64 provides for such a delay until the outcome is known of any legal proceedings that may affect the decision. The investigation recommenced in July 2012.

It transpired that during the design process, Mr Brown sent the builder the truss specification for the Wren Building, amending a template on his computer from another building, leaving a default chord size or chord size from a previous design.

Mr Brown admitted he ought to have picked up and corrected the chord size during his check, but this didn’t happen. When he saw the collapsed roof, he concluded that the chord size appeared to be small for the bolted connection detail and likewise the truss strength (chord size and depth) for the column.

A Disciplinary Committee (DC) sat to consider the matter in June 2013 and found that Mr Brown performed engineering services in a negligent manner, being grounds for discipline under s21(1)(c) of the CPEng Act.

This decision was appealed to the Chartered Professional Engineers Council (CPEC) the following month.

Mr Brown didn’t appeal the conclusion reached by the DC that he undertook engineering services in a negligent manner, but wished to clarify comments made in the DC’s report regarding whether this collapse indicated a possible systemic issue.

In its decision, dated 6 January 2014, the CPEC appeal panel stated that Mr Brown performed a negligent act and had been appropriately fined. CPEC found no evidence systemic problems existed in Mr Brown’s actions, therefore there’s no implication systemic problems exist with Mr Brown’s work.

The DC considered that Mr Brown’s actions were at the lower end of the scale of negligence: until this matter, he has had a blameless record. Mr Brown accepted responsibility for the mistake from the start of the inquiry and has been most co-operative during the process.

He made a mistake which only became apparent when a roof collapsed. It wasn’t a minor mistake; the matter is serious with public safety implications. The DC ordered Mr Brown be fined $1,500 and contribute $4,800 plus GST towards costs.