Review puts homes in firing line

Stack headache: A chimney that falls can cause a lot of damage, and threaten home occupants.
Stack headache: A chimney that falls can cause a lot of damage, and threaten home occupants.

Councils could force houseowners to reinforce their homes, including removing chimneys and unreinforced masonry, under sweeping proposals for quake-prone buildings from the Canterbury Earthquakes royal commission.

The commission's review covered the failure of 21 buildings in the February 2011 earthquake, resulting in 42 deaths. The PGC and CTV buildings were not part of this report.

It announced 36 sweeping proposals for earthquake-prone buildings throughout New Zealand.

It recommends commercial, public and multi-storey, multi-unit residential buildings be brought up to minimum standard within 15 years, down from the current average of 28 years.

Buildings with unreinforced masonry would be assessed within two years and strengthened or demolished within seven, the commission said, and local authorities would be given authority to force homeowners to repair hazards such as unreinforced chimneys.

Until now, single-unit residential buildings have not been required to meet earthquake standards.

But the commission said: "There are clearly some elements of residential building that pose hazards in earthquakes . . . and it is desirable that these should be made more resilient."

Although the Government insists it has no set position as a four-month consultation period begins, proposals from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment challenge the commission's findings on key points. The ministry argues that owners of unreinforced masonry buildings should have the same 15-year time frame as other prone buildings, with no need for local government intervention in residential homes.

This has left some Cantabrians badly hurt or affected by earthquakes disappointed.

Bev Edwards, who was paralysed when the building she was in collapsed in the February quake, said 15 years was "a very long time, especially if we continue to have earthquakes".

"Would they want their family in a building that hasn't been strengthened?" she said.

Robert Gilbert, who lost his 22-year-old son, Jaime, in the February earthquake when the Iconic Bar collapsed on the corner of Manchester and Gloucester streets, said the more lenient time frames were potentially "appalling".

"Since that day I've asked myself, why did my son have to die? The only thing that held the pieces together is maybe some good will come of it and we will learn something.

"It just defies belief that the Government would ignore those very strong recommendations to save lives," he said.

Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson, however, offered families of those killed or injured in the earthquake an assurance that no "final position" had been taken.

Differences between the commission and ministry could be resolved, he said.

The Government expected a lot of public feedback. "If I was a family member having lost someone, I would want it to be done tomorrow so it never happens again. In a perfect world, I would love to do it within weeks," Williamson said.

"In the end we've got to be reasonably pragmatic and reasonably sensible because, if we went for the gold standard on all of our buildings, we'd actually be bankrupt as a nation."

Crucially, the current threshold for earthquake-prone buildings, often referred to as 34 per cent of the new building standard, will not be raised - a point agreed by both the commission and ministry.

Increasing the standard to 67 per cent of code would cost $12 billion over 15 years, Williamson said, while the current proposals would add just $700m to the existing $1b strengthening bill.

The new standards affect 15,000 to 25,000 buildings, although Williamson admitted the figures were "appallingly rubber".

Only 23 of 66 local councils were able to give the Government an assessment of their own building stock.

The Press