19 Mar 2016

Brittle steel mesh to be tested: MBIE

7:07 am on 19 March 2016

Steel and Tube's products are expected to be among those tested as part of a wider investigation into failures with seismic mesh, the Ministry of Building Innovation and Employment (MBIE) says.

A worker spreads ready-mix concrete over steel mesh (file)

A worker spreads ready-mix concrete over steel mesh (file) Photo: 123RF

The company is already under investigation by the Commerce Commission after its mesh product was wrongly certified as having been analysed by an accredited laboratory.

Some in the construction industry say a regulatory vacuum and cut-throat competition has unleashed a flood of cheap, poor-quality products.

Structural engineer Bruce Davidson, formerly of Auckland University, said it was an ex-student on a site visit who alerted him to potential problems with brittle steel being used for reinforcement.

"She grabbed a reinforcing bar and it broke off in her hand. That was a bit of a worry."

Subsequent testing by Auckland University found some reinforcing steel was snapping instead of bending.

Engineers have been talking about the problem for years, but it was only after the Christchurch earthquake that officials started taking it seriously, Dr Davidson said.

But there was still pressure to keep costs low.

"In the main there are processes, but if people try to cheat, it's usually in the construction process where everyone is trying to get the cheapest solution if they build something."

Mark Graham, who publishes The Building Guide, said there was a big problem with poor-quality products.

It made no sense that something as critical as structural building products not have mandatory external auditing, he said.

"There should be a large degree of trust that products that are going into people's homes are actually fit for purpose. And how else can you determine that if they are not tested by an accredited laboratory?"

Steel Construction New Zealand manager Alistair Fussell said the dismantling of tariffs over the past two decades had opened the floodgates for cheap imports.

Australia's federal government was so worried about an epidemic of poor quality building products that it had set up a senate committee to investigate.

Those same shonky products were likely to be sold here too, Mr Fussell said.

"The government is keen to push down the cost of housing, making more affordable houses. So that then tends to push the supply chain towards these low-cost countries to supply the materials. Then you get the problem: can you be confident you're getting it?"

Mr Fussell said he would like to see compulsory third-party product testing but it was unlikely to happen if left to industry standards bodies.

"Standards associations who set standards are very reluctant to mandate any third-party testing, inspections of any structural products because they feel under free trade obligations that it's putting barriers to trade into the standard."

In his view, MBIE should take the lead.

A file photo shows a construction worker selecting steel mesh for concrete reinforcement

A file photo shows a construction worker selecting steel mesh for concrete reinforcement Photo: Cultura Creative

However, not everyone in the industry agreed.

Building Industry Federation head Bruce Kohn said external auditing was certainly advisable for companies - but "it would be overkill to make it compulsory".

"You can then find that it extends over a much greater variety and range of products than is necessary."

MBIE said while there was not currently a compulsory requirement for third party certification for building products, the ministry "supports and encourages industry-led third party schemes".

In a written statement, the ministry's building system performance manager Derek Baxter said

MBIE did not collect or monitor compliance information from every building product manufacturer in the country, but did investigate if a complaint of non-compliance with the Building Code was made.

"Such a complaint has not been made to MBIE about Steel and Tube....

"As you have been advised the Commerce Commission is investigating the Fair Trading Act aspect of this issue and is also conducting tests on whether steel mesh produced by a range of companies comply with the required standard.

"As Steel and Tube is one of the larger steel mesh suppliers we anticipate their product will be amongst those tested."

He said MBIE would await completion of those tests before considering what further steps, if any, needed to be taken.

"MBIE has no desire to compromise that investigation by making any further comment about Steel and Tube's testing practices or methods."

A spokeswoman for Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith, said he was aware of the Steel and Tube situation and was being updated on developments, as well as on the earlier Commerce Commission issue of steel mesh building code compliance.

"The minister is cautious of commenting further when the matter is before the independent Commerce Commission and the commercial issue is before the court.

"His focus and that of MBIE is on ensuring no building products pose a risk to public safety, and the current advice is that these issues are about commercial and label accuracy rather than being a building safety concern."

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