Builders in a Taranaki district will continue to wait with tools down while their council seeks advice on a building guideline that could cost customers thousands of dollars.
After concerns were raised about soil conditions in Stratford, the district council introduced a document earlier this month that immediately required building consent applicants to include a geotechnical investigation.
Stratford District Council has said the idea that every building consent now needed a geotechnical engineer’s report was a "misunderstanding".
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But builders and engineers say there’s no misunderstanding at all.
Under the guideline, a civil or structural engineer could undertake a scala penetrometer test to determine if there was "good ground".
But if the soil failed, the council said a $1800-$2500 bill would fall on the customer to have a geotechnical specialist carry out another assessment.
Wayne Bloor, who owns building design company DSA, said the scala test almost always gave a negative result in the district.
"It doesn't work for Taranaki," Bloor said, and builders and engineers had stopped work "because they know they won’t get the right results".
Bloor has nine consents held up before council, with another 17 to go in, and he has worked out that $67,000 is the total that would fall on his customers if he needed to pay for geotechnical assessments.
"And that’s just me – who knows what that number could be [across all Stratford builds]."
Bloor has an older couple living in their caravan as he cannot get the consent for their house relocation, and young families with children waiting for home extensions.
“It's funny, it's people in their [the council’s] district they're affecting," he said.
He is now weighing up between waiting to see if the council will amend the guidelines and asking his customers to try to find the money to pay for the tests.
"None of our existing costs have budgeted for it," he said."We don't want to waste their money. We're in a major stalemate – I don’t know what our next move is."
In an emailed response to questions on Thursday, Rose McLaughlan, technical lead for council as a building consents authority, said Stratford had "the intention of providing alternative testing methods", but was waiting on advice.
At a meeting with construction stakeholders on Wednesday night, McLaughlan said the decision to lay out the guidelines came after it was found council "shouldn't have given building consents" to a number of projects.
McLaughlan said this was discovered in an audit by International Accreditation New Zealand.
This found the council had a "number of deficiencies", and geotechnical assessment was one of the issues raised.
Under the national building code, bad ground needs to be assessed by a geotechnical engineer, McLaughlan told the room.
"This is where we're coming from," she said. "We did it because we don't have good ground here."
But Bloor, who is a builder by trade and has been a council building inspector and quality manager in the past, said the scala test was the "one little thing" in the guidelines that is stopping the district’s projects moving ahead.
"Everything's still on hold," he said on Thursday. "Because of a guideline that doesn’t fit Taranaki."
At Wednesday night's meeting, which saw seats full and many standing, council was heavily criticised for many aspects of the document, including "insulting" local engineers and their ability to do a good enough test.
Andy Fraser, a civil engineer of 40 years who owns New Plymouth’s Red Jacket, said local engineers would have a better understanding of the ground than anyone from out of town.
"You've got to know the local conditions," Fraser said.
He said it was a "bloody insult" to read the document, as he had been working in Taranaki for 25 years, and had a capable team behind him.
He said there were better ways of testing because the scala test "underestimates" the strength of the soil.
"It says the ground is not good enough," Fraser said. "It’s not the appropriate test for many of the soils around here."
Correction: A civil or structural engineer carries out a scala penetrometer test, not a geotechnical engineer as mentioned in an earlier version of this story. (Amended July 30, 2021)
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