Four men were crushed to death when a three-storey office collapsed on them in 1995. Five years later the truth has come out. The lessons we can learn should last much longer than this building did.
At 2pm on Tuesday 1 August, 1995, site agent Ron Martin phoned his boss to ask when the steel stanchions would be delivered. They were required for window openings in an office block they were refurbishing. He was already knocking out spandrel infill and windows between brick columns. Friday delivery, he was told. He put the phone down. One hour later Ron Martin was crushed to death. So were three of his men. The entire three-storey office block fell in on them.

Get your hands on the court judgment: Sylvia Berwick vs Wickens Holdings Ltd and others January 2000. The case is important because the judge concluded that no structural engineer, builder, architect, or building surveyor could reasonably have spotted that this 25-year-old building was a disaster waiting to happen. That it had a deadly flaw. If you had inspected the building, you would have missed the defect that led to this disaster. But we can all learn from it.

Here is the story. In 1969, Wickens Holdings built a 25 m × 9 m single-storey office in Ashford, Middlesex. It was a simple construction. Six load-bearing brick columns at the back and six at the front carried the weight of the precast roof. A year later Wickens put two more storeys on top. This is when the mistake was made.

The ground floor columns looked as though they were 18 × 18 inches. In fact, they were 18 × 13.5 inches. They appeared 4.5 inches wider because there was a one-brick unbonded skin on the front of the column with a narrow cavity between this fascia and the column. Yes, you have guessed. The new columns on the second and third storeys, which were also 18 x 13.5 inches, were not flush on top of the ground floor columns. They were, instead, partly sitting on the unbonded brick skin and slivers of Durox block sitting in the cavity between the columns and the brickwork. These blocks were taking much of the strain. This was a seriously negligent building. Yet, it showed no signs of distress.

In 1995 owners Hall & Co decided to refurbish the building. John Lay (Portsmouth) Ltd was appointed as design-and-build contractor. Very sensibly, it appointed consulting engineers and a firm of architects. Hall & Co's surveyor had spotted that the columns did not appear plumb. He instructed a survey by structural engineers through the main contractor. This was carried out by Michael Wharf. Let me say at once that Mr Wharf was completely exonerated in this whole matter. He was, of course, questioned closely during the trial, as was the main contractor. But the verdict was clear. Both parties had acted in a thoroughly professional way, despite missing the flaw. They were in no way at fault.

So, why didn't the consulting engineer spot the defect? Two reasons: firstly because it was impossible to check visually and secondly, because the documentation, plans dating from 1970, was defective. The unbonded brick skin was not visible at first-floor level once the extra two storeys were added. The Hall & Co building surveyor had been with the building from the outset. He had the plans. Nothing showed the cavity and outer skin. The brick used in the columns was good quality. The surveyor had said that the building's load was carried by the brick columns; they were solid.

Mr Wharf now did his calculations. They showed that the columns were overstressed when the offices were in use but not in their unloaded condition, without furniture and people. Stanchions were required from ground to roof to put things right. He was certain that the spandrel infills between the brick columns were non-load bearing. They had to come out to put in the new stanchions. We now know that the columns could not have held up the building without some transfer of loading into those infills. Once one was knocked out, the column would fail. And it did, and the others fell like a pack of cards.

Do something, please. If you teach engineering, show everyone how this trap arose. Explain the dangers of relying on old drawings, or what someone thinks happened years before. Explain how buildings don't get built according to the plans. Explain how knocking a building about requires nothing to be left to chance, nothing taken for granted. No price is worth the lives of four men, is it?

Liability for civil damages arising out of the deaths was Wickens'. It bore responsibility for any hidden defect from negligent construction that caused personal injury or death; this is the law of tort. It did not matter that Wickens had engaged others as independent builders 25 years before; it was Wickens' duty to supervise the construction works properly so as to avoid defects.