CROSS Safety Report
Unsafe removal of internal walls
This report is over 2 years old
A reporter was requested to advise on the removal of some internal walls in a decades’ old multi storey block of council flats after they were removed.
The flats were constructed from mostly in-situ concrete and brick/block.
Key Learning Outcomes
For all built environment professionals:
Advice should be sought from a suitably competent engineer with the relevant experience prior to any alterations being made.
It is good practice to also consult with building control prior to making alterations as approval may be required by them
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A reporter, who is a structural engineer, was requested to advise, in an informal manner, on the removal of some internal walls in a decades’ old multi storey block of council flats. The form of construction of the flats was mostly in-situ concrete and brick/block.
Removal of internal walls with no investigations or consent
A construction professional purchased one of the lower-level apartments from the council and proceeded to remove some internal walls. They did this without adequate investigation or obtaining professional advice from a structural engineer, and without consent from the council landlord of the surrounding residences.
Subsequently, on learning of the wall removals, the council requested a report from a structural engineer on the implications. The reporter provided a vague, carefully worded opinion qualified by multiple caveats.
The salient point is that removal of structure, which may have been loadbearing, was able to be done with the full knowledge and under the instruction of a construction professional without due care and attention and which might have resulted in disaster for the residents above.
Is there a massive void in public protection?
The reporter feels that this illustrates the massive void in public protection that we, as an industry, allow to exist without campaigning for legal protection before an event. This requires, according to the reporter, a sea change in the initiation, planning, execution and supervision of all construction activities. It is of little benefit to society to take legal action after a collapse has occurred.
Expert Panel Comments
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Changes to a structure at any stage of its life must be treated seriously. All too often alterations are made to structural elements by those who do not know whether they are loadbearing or not. Obviously, there should have been investigations and consultations at an early stage and certainly before anything was demolished.
The issue is, as the reporter says, that there is no mechanism for catching those who ignore proper procedures. There may be uncertainties in understanding vis-à-vis the difference between freehold and leasehold rights with the erroneous assumption that if you own the freehold you can do what you want.
The issue is, as the reporter says, that there is no mechanism for catching those who ignore proper procedures
Must you engage building control if a wall is not structural?
Another common misconception is that if a wall is not structural then there is no need to engage with building control. This is not true, and in any case, the determination of whether a wall is structural or not, is often based upon tapping it with knuckles to see if it sounds solid or not.
Although the reporter does not say whether building control were involved or not, we should all see the benefit in the second check provided by building control.
Detecting loadbearing walls in modern buildings
However, with a modern building, detecting the difference between a loadbearing wall and a partition may not be obvious. For example, in timber buildings or those with lightweight frames and this is a strong argument for creating and keeping digital records that stay with a property throughout its life and are updated when there are changes.
Presumably there was a builder involved in which case they should have asked, or known, whether there were structural implications. Then, because the client was a construction professional, there are further questions of competency and ethics to be addressed. The cultural change needed to prevent such events might include much higher penalties for non-compliance with regulations.
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