It is a pretty sad day to be writing – and we all know what about. Just over 36 hours ago, a building in Newtown caught fire and burnt out, killing at least 6 people, with 11 other people still not accounted for – so possibly up to 17 people dead. It is so sad because these lives were lost needlessly, tragically, and without any justification – its not like a mass-shooting where there is one madman that the hatred can be directed against – here it is just plain old kiwi ineptitude and crap bureaucracy that is to blame. Someone, somewhere, didn’t say something. Didn’t act. Didn’t think “What is the worst that could happen?”.
And yes, there will undoubtedly be an enquiry, and yes, there will be recommendations made, and yes, there will be a time where some of these will be implemented, but this whole episode makes me angry, and sad, and ashamed. Angry because this need not have happened had someone really sat back and said “hey, this is just not good enough” and ashamed because this sort of thing should not be happening in New Zealand – should not be happening in Wellington! We are a capital city – this sort of hapless idiocy happens in shitty backward third world countries with no rules and no bureaucracy or a corrupt officialdom. We have a lot of rules. We have a huge amount of bureaucracy, set up precisely to stop this kind of thing happening. We shouldn’t be having some thing like this go on, ever, in a city like ours that takes itself very seriously. Perhaps far too seriously – perhaps we really are just another banana republic. We need to be a lot better than that.
The DomPost has reported the local MP / ex-Mayoral candidate / Paul Eagle as saying something like “I knew it would be Loafer’s Lodge” when told there had been a fire and people had died. That’s as much an indictment on Mr Eagle as it is on the building – if he knew it was that bad that he automatically suspected it would be the one, it makes me think “So why the heck didn’t you do anything about it, Paul?” What was it that you could instantly tell was a death-trap waiting to happen? But that’s unfair as well – it should not be the place of some random passing person to dob the building in and say “this needs to be better”. But one report I read said that apparently the building owner is a company, and the company has one director, and that director died only a few months ago – so, in a strange quirk of fate, perhaps there truly is no one person to blame? In that case, all we really can do is to blame the system. But today, another report said that there were indeed people alive and well and running the Lodge, and today talking to the press.
We don’t know enough about the case yet to really be able to comment, but there are some things that can be checked out, straight away. For a start, why no sprinklers? Many people have said that already, and officials are scrambling to cover their arses, but the truth is, yes, it should have been sprinklered. Maybe not by law, but by common sense. You don’t put 92 rooms in a multi-storey concrete bunker and tell people to call it “home” without some elements of safety being factored in.
Second thing – no one has mentioned a second staircase yet. Was there just one stair? Or was there two? There are some signs of an external stair going to the roof from the top floor – which leads me to think that the escape from the roof probably went via that external stair and into a corridor on the floor below. Not directly to a safe means of escape. I’m going to guess that probably there was no second staircase, and that quite possibly the main means of access/exit, is a single stair, and that possibly the fire doors were jammed open. Just a guess, no proof at all, obviously, but just a hunch at this stage. It happens. People in apartment buildings sometimes get annoyed with having to open a door several times a day, and someone wedges a fire door open. And then, shit like this happens. Fires break out and cannot be controlled. Grenfell House in London was one such case, where over 70 people died, and seemingly no-one has yet been held to blame. But the causes of that fire are easy to record: flammable cladding, flammable insulation, no cavity stops vertically or horizontally, no sprinklers, no second staircase, no pressurisation for the stair, and an inept policy telling people that in the case of Fire, stay put. It is clear now, that these things were very wrong. What about here in Wellington? Nobody should be dying in a building only 4 storeys high. Nobody.
What else could go wrong / has gone wrong here? I’m betting that there was no staircase pressurisation duct for the fire stair. Again, not mandatory, but if you were designing a building from scratch, that’s what you would install. Makes the stair full of fresh air and not smoke. Such a simple step to take. One that most developers ignore and that many architects do not insist on. Just do it – it saves lives. What else? On each floor there was a “common room” – no doubt with a few old sofas and some aged foam cushions, the sort of cushions that love to make thick black acrid poisonous smoke when set alight. Here is a picture from the Loafers website.
The news is now reporting that police are following up on some possible arson at the Lodge – ie that someone set fire to the sofas, or possibly to the rooms. And the NZ Herald reports that “Dozens of people were trapped as thick smoke filled the lodge’s corridors and rooms, many woken by yelling and warnings to evacuate.” Well, two things raise my hackles here: one, that thick smoke filled the corridor, and two, that people were woken by yelling. One could have / should have been stopped by having a fire proof door and a self-closing mechanism, and the other should not have been necessary because the alarms should have been so bloody loud that you can’t sleep through it. Also – the roof collapsed, at some stage during the fire. Our regulations insist on fire-proof floors, but not fireproof roofs. Have we got that wrong as well?
But the big thing, to me, that other people have not stated publicly yet, is that there were 92 rooms in this building. 92 separate “homes” for society’s transient people. Every room is meant to have a window, to see some of the outside world. Some of them have one window. Some of them apparently, have more than one window. But are there some of the rooms that are without any windows at all? One or two of the rooms has a balcony – but most do not, as far as I can see. Most have no way of escaping except via their door, which should go directly to the protected egress stair via a safe route – ie a corridor with nothing flammable in it. Clearly something went wrong.
Still – 92 rooms, with 94 people in the building, 92 solitary little cells to spend a life in. Possibly some of the rooms without a window? How big are the rooms? Are they up to size for a minimum room size in NZ? Do we actually even have a minimum room size or house size in NZ? If so, what is it?
The building is 4 storeys tall in total, but it looks as though the people lived mostly on the top 3 floors. Either way, probably about 23 or 31 rooms per floor. In a building that measures, very roughly, about 15m wide x 40m long. Roughly 600m2 as a footprint. Allowing a modest amount for an escape stair, and let’s say a 20m long corridor and a decent kitchen and largish common room on each floor, I’m going to guess that about 150m2 is used up for common space, and so a maximum of 450m2 per floor is available for rooms – if there are 31 rooms per floor, then that is an average of 14m2 per room. Allowing for wall thicknesses etc, the room size is quite likely smaller, and with less amenities. The last hotel room I stayed in was bigger than that size, but I suspect also had a much higher standard of quality to the finishings. It also had sprinklers, and also had a working fire alarm system, and one that did not go off every day, and thence get ignored by the hotel residents. But I am guessing that the rooms were, overall, quite a bit smaller than the average hotel room. And I’m definitely sure that the doors onto the corridor were probably not as good as the monster heavy door that was on my hotel.
As we speak, the Loafer’s Lodge website is still up ( loafers lodge .co. nz ) and does not yet feature any news about the tragedy that has arisen. Pictures on this blog are taken directly from this lodge website. Their website does not say whether there are bathroom facilities available in each room, like an ensuite – I’m guessing that probably means No, or else they would have said that. And their words on the website still say:
LOAFERS LODGE – WELLINGTON’S MOST CONVENIENT AND AFFORDABLE ACCOMMODATION OPTION
If you’re looking for accommodation near Wellington Hospital or Wellington city, Loafers Lodge is your best choice for a quality stay.
We have modern rooms that are centrally located and suitable for both short and long term visitors.
Some advantages of Loafers Lodge include:
- Competitive prices (especially when compared to hotel and motel alternatives)
- Wi-Fi and Sky TV availability
- Security (every floor has its own floor entry key)
- Laundry facilities
- Lift access
- Comfortable lounge rooms
- Kitchen facilities for guest use
- Easy access to public transport
- Short and long term rates
Loafers Lodge is the best place to stay if you’re looking for affordable long term accommodation in Wellington.
We boast the city’s most practical and cost-effective rooms – especially if you want to stay near to the Wellington Hospital.
We offer both single and queen-sized rooms and all suites come complete with a bed, wardrobe, desk and chair, tv aerial and telephone connection. Wi-Fi, Sky television, kitchen and laundry facilities are available on every floor and bedding and towelling is available from reception upon request.
So, what to do, apart from mourn, feel terrible, and be knowledgable after the fact? How many more of these death traps are there in use in Wellington? I remember when I was at University and was staying in an old hostel that was cheerily described as the number Two fire risk in the city – and which we thought was quite a badge of honour and amusing, until of course one day when the number One fire risk burned down, and we moved up a notch. That sharpens your mind. The building was demolished a short time afterwards….
The number one thing to think about here is, after a quick search by the Council and others to make sure that there are no other cases like this waiting to happen – is that we act to stop any more shit-hole buildings like this being built in the first place. No more building crap for the poorest members of society to live in. It is a short term mindset. Build quality. Build right, first time. Make sure that every multi-storey building has two means of escape, all the time. Install sprinklers. Install quality fire doors and quality fire door closers. Install fire alarm systems that don’t go off every time someone burns the toast, because people DO burn the toast, and when you’re living in a box like that, you’re not going to be cooking grand meals, but you are going to be having a lot of toast. And lastly but not least, ensure that there is nothing in the corridor blocking the way to the Emergency Egress stair. Because that is a sure killer.
Out of idle curiosity, was the place built as accommodation, or was it at some past point a conversion?
This particular wonder was a bank and a church and all sorts of great stuff over the years before it was converted into residential accommodation.
About 10 years back the Council took the front part of the ground floor and built a footpath through it to avoid bowling the whole thing under the PWA when Adelaide Rd was widened.
And Vodafone has transmission stuff on the roof.
And yet the building was apparently still legally fine. Says more about the ineptitude of MBIE than anything else.
I would love to know how it worked when it was used as a “Church”. Unlike any church I have ever seen! Was it just one large space on the ground floor? Or did they take out a floor in-between and have a larger volume somehow? If not – possibly the most soul destroying supposed “church” ever? Maybe it was the Church of the Holy Tax Dodge?
So many places don’t have sprinklers that commonsense would say should – most schools don’t. Bunnings Lyall Bay doesn’t, and that place will go up like a Roman Candle one day. I can’t believe insurers in this country stand for it. Or that politicians haven’t noticed but maybe they really do just live in la la land.
Hi Chico – I’m not an expert on this, but I think it would be unusual for any large ground floor warehouse type building to ever have sprinkler systems. Bunnings, Mitre 10, Briscoes, Warehouse, Countdown – they are all the same. In case of a fire just head straight to an exit and go outside. Not sure why you think Bunnings in Lyall Bay would be any better or worse than anywhere else. Their Fire Plan will just measure straight line distances to the nearest exit. Probably 24m ? Or 48m ?
Bunnings in Lyall Bay probably much more likely to be destroyed by a Tsunami to be honest
I was thinking about how bunnings and the like have piles of flammable stuff. Paints and crappy “wood” and kerosene. The place would be an inferno. Everyone would (probably) get out but the place would be destroyed, with health problems for everyone in the area, and risks to the H&S of the fire fighters. That last point is enough for sprinklers to be required IMHO
The insurers probably do a calculation based on goods rendered unsaleable by water damage vs goods rendered unsaleable by smoke and fire damage.
I visited a friend in Loafers a couple of years back. Bleak rabbit warren of a place, which didn’t look anywhere as nice as the photos on the website (which were apparently from the nicer, lower floor). Rooms were infested with bed bugs. And yes, doors were propped open.
Thanks John – yes, I suspected that the quality of the spaces were possibly a little optimistic in terms of the cleanness and tidiness.
The Post today is reporting that the top floor especially had a chaotic arrangement for access to the roof, involving a badly planned stair and a rabbit warren of rooms.
Also, that the top floor is where the fatalities were. And that the roof has collapsed onto the top floor.
[…] Lodge fire: We shouldn’t wait for tragedy to address known risks (paywalled) Eye of the Fish: Loafers Lodge fire Glenn McConnell (Post): Loafers Lodge fire an indictment and tragedy, MPs say, as focus turns to […]
Well that’s a useful link. From that we can go to this story
And here they say:
Previous tenants of the third floor of Wellington’s Loafers Lodge say it was a “death trap” with poor access to stairwells.…. Another resident, who did not want to be named, said during her five-month stay in 2013 she had no access to the stairwells with her swipe card and felt scared when a small fire broke out in the third floor kitchen.…. Reflecting on the events of Tuesday morning she said her only escape would have been to reach the roof of the building by running up an internal staircase, which led the mezzanine floor and the roof.
“I’ve been trying to relive it and remember when I lived there, what would I have done? The only choice was to go to the roof but people say that’s where all the flames were.”
Also – from Bernard Hickey’s substack:
“Very early yesterday morning, more than 90 of Wellington’s most vulnerable people had to scramble, crawl and jump for their lives to get out of an office building converted to rooms for rent at up to $240 a week, some without windows, and none with sprinklers. At least six, and possibly as many as 11 more, died trying to get out of a building on fire, clogged with smoke, and yet given a building warrant of fitness two months ago.
“People who are mentally ill, homeless, alone, unemployed, on probation, under community orders and often estranged from whanau and friends. Some were Filipino nurses on temporary work visas and unable to find a proper home. Some were ‘501s’ living in rooms being paid for by the state, wrenched from whatever familial support they might have had in Australia and distrusted and despised here.
“These are the people who keep falling off the edge of the public gaze in our political economy, pushed out to the homeless, chronically ill and vagrant margins of society by just-as-chronic housing shortages, a stressed-to-breaking-point health system and little-to-no disposable income.“
The scary thing to me is $240 times 90 rooms is nearly $25,000 a week. Multiply by 52 weeks a year and income to the building owner is over $1,000,000 per annum, a lot of it likely coming from social agencies. It seems to me the government through its accommodation support is indirectly setting a floor for rents and (maybe) unintentionally supporting rents at an artificially high level. There is a flow on effect to every renter. If the government will pay $240 a week then that is the lowest most landlords are going to offer.
Absolutely ! That building should have been able to be offering high-quality, safe and comfortable accommodation to the people within, instead of flea-infested scanty accommodation. A million dollars per year in income would mean that sprinklers could have easily been installed, and paid off within a couple of years.
Sadly it is arson and ultimately mental health was the root cause
There are a lot of people left behind with the housing shortage but damn the poor do like to blow their money on wheels and bling rather than land
Ive been working up the rough part of Stokes Valley lately and the meth heads are alive and unwell
I think that the country would be better off if we legalised MDMA, banned cigarettes and taxed alcohol to the bejeezus
It might screw the gangs main income source which would be tragic