Building and Housing Minister Dr Nick Smith announced a targeted approach to building regulations for earthquake safety at the National Party’s Mainland conference yesterday:
“The priority in developing this earthquake strengthening policy for buildings is public safety and minimising future fatalities. We also need to ensure the response is proportionate to the risk, that the costs are minimised and that we retain as much of our built heritage as possible,” Dr Smith says.
The four significant changes to the policy are:
- Varying the timetable for strengthening relative to earthquake risk
- Prioritising education and emergency buildings for strengthening
- Reducing the number of buildings requiring assessment; and
- Introducing new measures to encourage earlier upgrades.
“The timeframe for identification and assessment of five years and strengthening of 15 years is to be varied relative to seismic risk. The return period for a significant earthquake (MM8) ranges from 120 years in Wellington, to 720 years in Christchurch, to 1700 years in Dunedin, and only once every 7400 years in Auckland. New Zealand is to be categorised into low, medium and high seismic risk zones with timeframes for assessment of five, 10 and 15 years and strengthening of 15, 25 and 35 years,” Dr Smith says.
“Education and emergency buildings will be targeted by requiring that in high and medium seismic risk areas they be identified and strengthened in half the standard time. We are prioritising all education buildings regularly occupied by 20 people or more. We also want to ensure buildings like hospitals can maintain services in the aftermath of a significant earthquake.
“The scope of buildings requiring assessment is to be reduced from an estimated 500,000 to 30,000. We are excluding farm buildings, retaining walls, fences, monuments, wharves, bridges, tunnels and storage tanks. The new methodology for identifying earthquake-prone buildings will ensure the focus is on older buildings like unreinforced masonry that pose the greatest risk.
“Building owners are to be encouraged to upgrade their buildings ahead of the allowable timeframe by establishing a web based public register and requiring notices on such buildings highlighting the level of risk. There will also be a new requirement to strengthen earthquake-prone buildings when doing substantial alterations.”
The Government also confirmed that the earthquake-prone building definition as being less than 34 per cent of the new building standard (NBS), a 10-year extension for listed heritage buildings, and exemptions from strengthening for low risk, low occupancy buildings, would remain in the policy.
“The effect of these policy changes is that buildings like schools, universities and hospitals in high and medium seismic risk areas will have to be upgraded more quickly, but buildings in low risk areas like Auckland and Dunedin more gradually. This more targeted approach reduces the estimated cost from $1360 million to $777 million while retaining the safety gains. The policy will result in an estimated 330 fewer deaths and 360 fewer serious injuries from earthquakes over the next century,” Dr Smith says.
“The select committee is considering the Bill and will be reporting back to Parliament in July with passage later this year. We will also be consulting on the detailed regulations like the assessment methodology, the Earthquake-Prone Buildings Register, the building notice requirements and the definition of substantial alterations.
“There are no easy answers to the seismic risk posed by thousands of older buildings in New Zealand. We cannot completely eliminate the risk to life, nor save every heritage building, nor avoid a bill for hundreds of millions in upgrading. This is the most comprehensive policy of any seismically active country for dealing with older buildings and strikes the right balance between safety, cost, heritage and practicality.”
The Minister’s full speech is here.
The schedule of the revised timetable by location is here.
A map of the new zones is here.
This policy is pragmatic and practical and has been greeted positively.
The Construction Strategy Group says it is realistic:
The targeted risk-based policy adopted by the Government toward strengthening of earthquake-prone buildings appears realistic for the circumstances with which the country is dealing says the Construction Strategy Group (CSG).
Chairman of the CSG, Geoff Hunt, said today that in adopting a measured position reflective of the realities that earthquake risk in New Zealand varies significantly between regions the Government was taking a realistic approach.
“A policy which puts aside more onerous and unreasonable requirements for upgrading commercial structures in low risk regions, and disposes of top level upgrades for little-used farm sheds and such buildings as isolated rural country churches, is practical and sensible,” he says.
“The CSG has long advocated a policy that takes account of risk factors. It is supportive of the intention to set a ‘must upgrade’ base line of 34 percent of today’s new building standard. The new time frames for upgrading earthquake-prone structures are also helpful in bringing cost factors into line with affordability.
“The regional categorisation of regions into low, medium and high risk zones will allow local government to take a realistic policy approach.
“The openness to public scrutiny of a building’s earthquake resistance status is also helpful to public safety. It will also ensure constant pressure on building owners with at risk buildings to have them brought up to speed sooner rather than later.
“Priority focus on upgrading the 30,000 most at risk buildings and on upgrading schools and hospitals is a matter of necessity.”
He said strengthening must still go ahead, but he was pleased Dr Smith had listened to the concerns of southern councils which had lobbied him ”intensively” for two years for change.
”To his credit, he’s listened to those concerns and yes, he will [now] adjust according to [earthquake] risk,” Mr Cull said when contacted last night.
Mr Cull said the ”one size fits all” edict had been detrimental to the lower South Island because of the large number of older buildings.
”Basically, it would have been uneconomic to fix [earthquake proof] them and a lot would have had to be demolished,” Mr Cull said.
The first policy proposed for earthquake safety measures took no account of risk.
Owners of historic buildings in low risk areas like Oamaru and Dunedin would have been forced to demolish their buildings because they would not have been able to do meet the proposed standard in the proposed time.
This policy takes a much more balanced approach based on risk.
It doesn’t mean that earthquakes won’t strike low risk areas nor that a quake won’t kill people.
The Minister rightly says We cannot completely eliminate the risk to life, nor save every heritage building, nor avoid a bill for hundreds of millions in upgrading.
This policy balances risk and cost.