The abandoned building and the shameless engineer

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Christchurch engineer Joo Cho thought he was in the best position to design the building at 230 High St. His work sparked a controversy that embroiled 12 New Zealand engineering companies and sparked a court battle. Reports by MARTIN VAN BEYNEN.

In four years, little has changed at 230 High St, a struggling building in a prime location in Christchurch’s CBD.

Looking at the nearly completed building in July 2022, it’s as if the workers had suddenly dropped their tools and fled.

Fall leaves made their way under a downstairs glass door that was supposed to be the entrance to a Coffee Club cafe. Instead of tables, happy customers and the smell of coffee, there is a wheelbarrow, a ladder and unopened bundles of insulating material.

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The blue and green glass panels used to cover the facade of the building look like an abstract painting, but there is nothing abstract about the building’s predicament.

Due to design flaws, it will have to be dismantled or demolished. In the meantime, the only action on the building will be in the High Court.

The proceedings began in late 2021 and, with three plaintiffs, seven defendants and multiple claims and counterclaims, promises to be a complex and bitter tussle unless the parties settle before trial. Stuff obtained the documents from the High Court. They tell a sad story.

The interior ground floor of 230 High St, pictured in 2018 when disputes over its future began.

Iain McGregor / Stuff

The interior ground floor of 230 High St, pictured in 2018 when disputes over its future began.

A quick story

The land and building at 230 High St are owned by Hyung Sun Kim, who lives in Auckland and has business interests in Manila. Design work began in 2015, with the foundations and superstructure designed by Auckland firm Blue Barn Consulting. His work was peer-reviewed by ISPS Consulting Engineers, a Taupō company then owned by Ian and Mary Smith. The couple were killed in a car crash near Tokoroa in October 2016. The business closed. Blue Barn’s design received consent from Christchurch City Council in May 2016.

The developer, Rockwell One Ltd, then commissioned Christchurch firm Seismotech, a one-man group of owner Joo Hyun Cho, to prepare detailed design drawings and calculations for the steel girder superstructure. .

Cho earned his engineering degree in Korea, completed postgraduate studies at the University of Canterbury, and worked for several companies and the Christchurch City Council. He became a Chartered Engineer in 2008.

At the High St site, he completely redesigned the structure. The work was peer reviewed by engineering firm Miyamoto International NZ which has an office in Christchurch.

Miyamoto provided certificates stating that Cho’s new steel structure design was building code compliant, and in February 2018, the city council gave its approval. The council engaged Opus International Consultants (now WSP New Zealand) to assist with the consent process and the firm also advised that Seismotech’s design meets Building Code standards.

Construction began in November 2015 and was well underway when, two years later, a graduate engineer working for Aurecon Consulting Engineers walked past the site and became alarmed.

The ground floor of 230 High St in June 2022. Not much has changed since the 2018 photo was taken.

martin van beynen/stuff

The ground floor of 230 High St in June 2022. Not much has changed since the 2018 photo was taken.

Debacle

The young engineer reported what they thought were design flaws in the building to their bosses. It was the start of a debacle for everyone connected with the building.

More experienced leaders at Aurecon reviewed the rookie’s concerns and agreed. They approached Cho but he was adamant Aurecon didn’t understand the method he used. Aurecon then went to the council who asked Cho and Miyamoto for their response. Cho assured the board that his design was compliant. Unsatisfied, the board asked Holmes Consulting Engineers to review Aurecon’s concerns.

In the meantime, Rockwell continued construction and in February 2018 the council issued another consent. In August, Holmes returned to the board saying most of Aurecon’s concerns were valid.

The council then approached the Department for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to decide on Cho’s design. In December 2019, after a review by global engineering firm Beca, MBIE concluded that the building had major flaws, including the design underestimating seismic loads by 25%; a column in the superstructure being overloaded by 500%; the loads on the columns being 10 times greater than the capacity of the piles; a column splice (a feature designed to distribute the load) being inadequate for the column; and potentially dangerous ground-level bracing that had been modified to allow access to the stairwell.

As a result, the council, which had been charging full commercial rates on the building since May 2018, had no choice but to stop issuing permits and code compliance certificates. The building was in limbo. The owner’s own engineering report by Structex Harvard Consulting Engineers concluded that the building could not be redeveloped and should be demolished or dismantled.

Cho disbarred

Acting on a complaint from an Aurecon partner, Engineering New Zealand’s Disciplinary Committee held a hearing and decided in December 2021 to remove Cho from the Register of Chartered Professional Engineers, citing his incompetence and refusal to examine objectively the concerns. Cho, still convinced that his designs were in line, told the committee that he had retired.

Dead leaves pile up at the entrance to 230 High St, which has not seen an occupant for four years.

martin van beynen/stuff

Dead leaves pile up at the entrance to 230 High St, which has not seen an occupant for four years.

Engineers from Miyamoto, the company that peer-reviewed Cho’s design, told the committee that their certificate approving Cho’s design was subject to whatever blueprint changes he wanted. The changes were not made even though Cho confirmed that the issues were resolved. Cho had made fundamental design changes during construction “without our review”, they said.

The battle begins

Any civil lawsuit begins with a statement filed by the parties who want to recover their losses. They are called claimants. In this case, there are three: the owner of the building, Kim; Rockwell E & C Ltd, a construction company owned by Riccarton resident Jinho Kwon; and Rockwell One Ltd, a real estate investment company also owned by Kwon. Kwon Enterprises was in charge of the development and construction of the building.

The plaintiffs claim against seven defendants, the first three being Christchurch City Council, Cho and his company Seismotech. The other four are the engineering companies involved in guaranteeing parts of the design – Blue Barn, ISPS, Miyamoto and WPS (formerly Opus).

Essentially, all of the defendants are accused of failing in their legal responsibilities, be it design, peer review, consent, or inspection. The result was a non-conforming building which, it is claimed, serves no purpose. In court documents, the plaintiffs are claiming losses of approximately $19 million, including the cost of a rebuild and demolition expenses.

The plaintiffs insist that if a rookie engineer could spot the problems from the street, they should have been clear to everyone else involved.

They also claim the building poses a risk to pedestrians and nearby properties, a claim denied by council.

Defenses and Counterclaim

In four years, only the flags outside 230 High St have changed.

martin van beynen/stuff

In four years, only the flags outside 230 High St have changed.

The council, in its defence, argues that it exercised reasonable skill and diligence in issuing the building permits and carrying out the inspections. The plaintiffs, he says, failed to mitigate their loss, alleging they knew of Aurecon’s concerns at least in November 2017, but continued to maintain the building’s design was compliant and sued. building. No independent expert has been hired until June 2019.

The board also filed a counterclaim against Seismotech, Cho, Miyamoto, and WSP citing much of the same failures as the plaintiffs. If the council is found liable, the four parties should indemnify it against any liability, the council said. Cho also failed in his duty to the council by not being insured despite his statements to the contrary, according to the council.

More defenses

In his defense, Cho denies that the structural design was flawed and says Beca, who wrote the report for MBIE, used the wrong methodology and based his conclusions on assumptions without detailed calculations to back it up. He insists that his structural design complied with the Building Code. Like counsel, he also alleges that the plaintiffs should have taken corrective action when informed of the alleged defects.

Legal proceedings are underway to decide the fate of those involved in the design and construction of 230 High St.

Iain McGregor / Stuff

Legal proceedings are underway to decide the fate of those involved in the design and construction of 230 High St.

Miyamoto’s position in her defense is much the same as she stated to the Engineering NZ Disciplinary Tribunal in that she did not review all of the elements of the building’s design that were found defective. WSP says he was a member of a select panel of consultants set up by the council to help deal with construction consent applications and under his contract his review was limited to four or five hours for each consent. Its verification did not involve peer review or examination of the underlying calculations.

In court documents, Blue Barn and ISPS both say Cho made changes to the design they prepared and approved.

All of the defendants accuse the plaintiffs of not doing enough to mitigate their loss.

Court documents show numerous accusations and recriminations between plaintiffs and defendants in the case.

Martin van Beynen / Stuff

Court documents show numerous accusations and recriminations between plaintiffs and defendants in the case.

Look forward

The parties will now begin discovery, a process where all relevant documents are collected.

A lawsuit will be years away and in the meantime, the building owner has few options other than to begin demolition. Unlike Cho, the engineering firms involved in the legal battle will be well insured. A resolution is likely. Watch this place.

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