19 April 2016

Canberra tales: As your building sinks, get out!

| Paul Costigan
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It was not long ago that occupants of a new Civic office building reported faults appearing in the structure. Office workers noticed that floors were sagging.

As would be expected, the owners and anyone else with authority made the appropriate noises that all was well and that remedial work was being carried out

A story soon circulated about an employee’s weird experience on returning to work. As he had been on leave it had been a while since he had driven down into the underground carpark. So in he drove just as he had so many times before.

But something was different. The top of his van scrapped the fittings above. He thought to himself, the vehicle was the same and there was nothing about it that should have meant it was suddenly that higher.

Alas, he reported the mysterious incident. The investigation was immediate and revealed the ceiling had in fact lowered itself. The whole building was on the move – downwards! It was vacated soon after.

That building was the Silverton building. It was situated on the northwest corner of Rudd and Moore Streets. In 1995 it was deemed structurally unsound and beyond repair, and was demolished.

The building was less than ten years old.

In relation to the fault above, the floors were indeed on the move as there had been some dodgy work in the original formwork for the concrete floors.


The demolition of the Silverton building is a sad tale of the effectiveness of the monitoring of building requirements. It is also a reminder that while many residents are trying to remedy the very dubious planning and development processes across Canberra, few have had the time or resources to monitor the building standards of the current crop of rushed apartments that are being encouraged through accelerated land sales.

Footnote: The photos are not of the Silverton building but from another carpark that also has roof problems. Look above you next time you park in a parking station – you never know what may be happening.

This is part of an occasional series, Canberra Tales, offering short stories, mostly true but including many urban myths, about intriguing aspects of Canberra. As with any story telling, we welcome other variations, accurate or otherwise, to these tales.

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I always thought the thing with Silverton was that there was an underground creek bed running through the site which wasn’t properly accounted for.

wildturkeycanoe7:02 am 18 Sep 15

That is nothing. There is a building on Mort Street that I worked in during a complete refurbishment, top to bottom, which required gutting out all the interior offices. When we went to install the new skirting along the floor of the newly constructed partition walls, there were gaps appearing in the joins. At first I thought the blade on the drop saw was cutting incorrectly, but after checking the duct for squareness, it appeared something else was causing the phenomenon. After doing some measurements and speaking to the builder, it became apparent that the slab was sunken between the vertical support pillars. It was so bad, that a drop of up to 100mm occurred between two pillars only 6 meters apart. Also, the basement revealed another scary problem when the internal fire stairs started getting cracks in the besa block walls. The unladen building had crept up so much that gaps of over 50mm appeared at the top of the walls and indeed in the brickwork itself, needing repairs and sometimes demolition. I couldn’t believe that the weight of all that office furniture was enough to make these steel and concrete floors bow so much. The engineers reassured us that everything was safe though, so we continued to install everything, knowing that there were few level or straight surfaces to follow.

My dad (I’m showing my age) worked in the Silverton.

One of the office party tricks was to put a pen on a desk and watch it roll away…

Office doors would open or close depending which way the frame was leaning too.

As one of the many lawyers involved in the silverton litigation (which had a hearing lasting over 8 weeks and invoked I think 6 or 7 parties), I can reassure people there was plenty of insurance around..

The case is probably reported and it was more complex than it may appear (or this article suggests). No one was really sure exactly what happened, there was a strong line of thought that it was just the concrete not being cured properly and changing shape as it dried-not dangerous, just scary looking. Others of course argued otherwise. The curtain wall also leaked, creating an interesting situation of the owner trying to sue the curtan wall people for something on a building that was, in any case, possibly falling down

If I recall correctly failure of the floor slabs of Silverton was caused by incorrect construction of the drop panels. These are the square mushroom type panels atop a column where reinforcement steel from the columns rise out of the column and are bent to tie to the horizontal bars within the slab above. Typically a drop panel may be about 1000 square and 150 – 200 deep.

In the ACT multi storey buildings are exempted from home owners warranty because typically buildings of such relative complexity are constructed by a cabal of professional consultants. Under our wonderful Westminster system anyone with a degree can do no wrong, don’t forget this is the ACT and if you are “Qualified” you are the ant’s pants.

Fred Nurk building a house in the greenfields has to virtually mortgage his house and jump through a maze of probity checks to prove he is a good bloke worthy of building a house before he can qualify for HOW accreditation.

Consultants carry Professional Indemnity Insurance, they are relatively safe compared to the poor old Fred’s who for the most part are honest blokes trying to do their best. Generally most buildings over three stories are of masonry and concrete construction, the theory is that they don’t have to be subject to a Frame & Presheet Inspection by building inspectors. That’s where “professionalism” lets all down and why there are so many complaints about water entry, noise intrusion etc by owners of units in multi storey buildings.

In the ACT there is token responsibility for building defects in multi storey’s. In the ACT there is a Nominee Builder who holds a Licence and theoretically carries the can but there is lots of wriggle room, the “builder” can claim he relied upon the consultants and avoid the consequences of responsibility for years. In NSW you don’t have to hold a builder’s licence to build multi storey.

And before anyone complains about Private Certifier Building Surveyors in the ACT and wants a return to the regime of Government inspectors think about this; In the last year figures were made available (1998 – 99) the ACT Gummint paid out about $2M to aggrieved owners to settle complaints about faulty building work by builders and negligence on the part of government inspectors. That figure was typical for each of the previous ten years from what I can recall.

ChrisinTurner3:36 pm 17 Sep 15

If a building is over 3 storeys the builder is exempted from having building defect insurance. Who does this benefit? Yet they say the ACT does not need an anti-corruption commission.

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