Plea for action on quake building rules

Last updated 05:00 25/07/2013

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The Government is expected to announce changes within weeks to the way earthquake-prone buildings are dealt with, as property owners demand urgency.

The Property Council said yesterday that the latest swarm of earthquakes to rattle the country had highlighted the need to get on with strengthening the most at-risk buildings.

But commercial building owners and councils across the country were "hanging in the balance" while the Government pondered changes to the Building Act, chief executive Connal Townsend said.

"Many local authorities have put policy changes and assessments for earthquake-prone buildings on hold and building owners are waiting for a Government decision."

Shortly after the findings of a royal commission into the Canterbury earthquakes were revealed in December, the Government sought feedback on significant changes to how earthquake-prone buildings were dealt with.

It floated ideas such as raising the minimum standard that buildings have to meet in order to be considered safe during a moderate quake - currently 33 per cent of new buildings standards - and shortening the time some owners have to get their buildings either up to code or demolished.

Public consultation ended in March. The Government said it would consider the submissions and use them to inform its response to the full royal commission report by early to mid-2013.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said the Cabinet was expected to consider policy proposals in about a fortnight, with announcements expected soon after.

Mr Townsend said not knowing what the new quake-safe standard would be meant many building owners and councils had been unable to calculate the cost of their strengthening work.

"Reports that Hastings District Council could take up to 20 years to assess 911 buildings deemed potentially earthquake-prone are just one example of the challenge local authorities will face in even funding the assessment work," he said.

Wellington City Council earthquake resilience manager Neville Brown said the council was just as anxious as every other building owner to see a decision made as quickly as possible.

"I know there are maybe half a dozen building owners in Wellington who are ready to strengthen but are not willing to start until such time as . . . the 34 per cent threshold for the minimum earthquake standard is confirmed or otherwise."

The city council has assessed 4239 of the buildings built in Wellington before 1976 and has found 611 that are earthquake-prone. It still has about 800 buildings left to inspect.

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The fact that many of Wellington's pre-1976 buildings were "right on the threshold or just above" and came through the weekend's quakes largely unaffected showed the current standard worked, Mr Brown said. 

THE PROPOSALS

Owners of all non-residential buildings will be required to have an assessment done within five years of the changes taking effect, with the information to be made publicly available on a register.

All earthquake-prone buildings must be strengthened, or demolished, within 15 years of the changes taking effect, compared with an average of 28 years under the current system.

Views were also sought on the current earthquake-prone building threshold (one-third of the new building standard), whether the current fire escape and disability upgrade requirements in the Building Act are a barrier to earthquake strengthening, and how to treat different types of buildings, such as heritage buildings and schools. 

- Fairfax Media

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