'Urgent action' needed to prevent quake deaths

BEN HEATHER AND DAVID WILLIAMS
Last updated 05:00 13/10/2011

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Thousands of "particularly dangerous" buildings throughout New Zealand should be immediately strengthened to prevent deaths in a moderate earthquake, the Canterbury earthquakes royal commission says.

In its interim report made public yesterday, the commission said councils needed to do an urgent stocktake of all unreinforced masonry buildings, all of which would need to be propped or strengthened.

"Immediate action is necessary to strengthen parts of unreinforced masonry buildings that could fail, causing injury or loss of life, in earthquakes that are less severe than the Canterbury earthquakes," said commission chairman Justice Mark Cooper in a foreword to the report.

Unreinforced masonry was responsible for 42 deaths in the February 22 quake, with people crushed in central Christchurch buildings, on footpaths and in buses by falling bricks or facades.

The commission, which was established to investigate building failures after the February quake, said New Zealand had about 3500 unreinforced masonry buildings, excluding about 500 destroyed in Canterbury. All should secure features, such as chimneys and parapets, which could fall from a height.

"Unfortunately, these buildings are brittle in nature, and if they have not been strengthened are particularly dangerous as they may fail in moderate earthquakes," the commission said.

The commission said in areas where the quake hazard was higher – most of New Zealand – walls should also be strengthened and connections between the floors and walls improved.

It did not discuss the cost or responsibility for retrofitting quake-prone buildings, but a report prepared for the commission last month said fully strengthening these buildings would cost $2.1 billion. The report said these buildings were collectively worth only $1.5b, and a public debate was needed on how this work would be funded.

Professional Engineers New Zealand deputy chief executive Nicki Crauford said the commission has raised valid concerns, but changes would not happen overnight. Local councils were already required to have a quake-prone building policy, but this had been enforced with varying urgency, and building owners would need to step up.

Property Council New Zealand chief executive Connal Townsend said there were "issues" with unreinforced masonry buildings, but for many owners the cost of strengthening was "insurmountable".

"While some owners would – and have – undertaken considerable seismic strengthening around the country, many character buildings will be condemned to demolition," he said.

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Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson said many of the recommendations in the interim report were already being developed by the Department of Building and Housing.

In particular, he had asked the department to "progress work" on unreinforced masonry buildings.

"I also expect to see building owners taking action on the recommendations for improving the performance of these buildings," he said.

The commission also sought changes to structural design and construction practices – urgently in the case of greater Christchurch – after experts' reports identified shortcomings.

The commission recommended Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee use special powers to ensure Christchurch's rebuild did not repeat construction mistakes that led to some Canterbury buildings performing "poorly" in the quakes.

"Urgent action is required in respect of some aspects of current building design practice, both in Christchurch and elsewhere, to make some buildings elements (particularly stairs and floors in multi-storey buildings) more resilient," the report said.

Brownlee told The Press government officials needed to determine how much higher building standards would go, for Christchurch and the rest of the country.

"I don't see any problem using the [earthquake recovery] powers at that point, if that's the best way to do it," he said. "We'll want to move with as much haste as possible."

Labour earthquake recovery spokesman and Waimakariri MP Clayton Cosgrove said the Government had to balance the risk of a future tragedy against the substantial cost of buildings meeting higher standards.

"People are going to need some swift direction from Mr Brownlee, who holds those powers," he said. "He should use the powers to ensure people are protected."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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