Backlog of quake checks takes toll

Failure to attract a structural engineer to carry out secondary assessments of buildings considered earthquake-prone in Nelson city is causing a backlog, and threatens to hold up sales and lease transactions on commercial properties.

Councillor Rachel Reese said at a recent Nelson City Council meeting that despite the council's obligation as a public body to get on with the work, it was looking less likely due to a lack of interest in the job.

The council set aside funding this year to hire a structural engineer, but so far it has not been able to attract anyone.

It expects to issue notices on several hundred buildings over the coming years as it works through assessing the strength of commercial and public buildings in the wake of the Christchurch quakes.

The council said recently it would take council staff up to five years to assess the 478 commercial buildings due to be reviewed for earthquake standards.

Councillors heard this week that potential buyers searching property site files held by the council were finding information that indicated a building was awaiting or was partway through the assessment process.

The initial onus is on building owners to carry out their own assessments of earthquake risk. An Initial Evaluation Procedure (IEP) will determine if further assessment and work is needed.

The council's structural engineer was required at the point that a review of information was needed in the event that building strengthening work or demolition was needed, for which building consent would be required, the council said.

Council acting chief executive Richard Johnson said there were potentially "huge costs to the community" if the council did not apply money for work it was intended for.

Ms Reese said outside the meeting the council was now "well behind timeframes" on assessing earthquake-prone buildings.

She said one person was currently spending two days a week on the project, and one of those days was taken up with administration.

"Funding was allocated this year to employ an engineer. The job was advertised but it's not attracted anyone.

"Doing nothing is not an option, and perhaps we're now in a situation where we're going to have to contract this out. We can't leave it - we have an obligation under the Building Act to do this."

Summit Real Estate commercial and industrial consultant Bevan Dixon said the impact was not being felt yet, but he expected it to hit soon.

"There are a lot of buildings for lease right now, but it will have an effect when tenants have to move, because there will be a need for the council to give the OK on the building to make sure it's up to code.

"It's not causing grief yet, but it will hit us and slow the market down," Mr Dixon said.

If buildings do not meet the standards required under tougher rules brought about by revised earthquake standards, tenants can vacate buildings.

"A number of building owners I'm meeting with are expressing concern, and I know this problem will start to show soon," Mr Dixon said.

"We have to rely on the council to have this work done."

"If they can't attract an engineer to the job, the next thing to do would be to incentivise it to get someone here and get started," Mr Dixon said.

Inner-city commercial building owner Gaire Thompson, who owned two buildings considered to be earthquake-prone under the new guidelines, said a lot of tenants were asking about the new earthquake standards ratings. Some tenants, such as banks and government departments, were more particular about operating from premises that met requirements.

He said he understood the council's predicament in not being able to attract an engineer. "People all around the country are trying to get them but they're pretty snowed under."


Earthquake risk evaluation process: The Nelson City Council's earthquake-prone buildings policy applies to all buildings except single-storey residential buildings and two- (or more) storey residential buildings that contain only one or two household units. The council carries out an initial desktop assessment of building stock. Building owners are then contacted and asked to engage an engineer to complete an Initial Evaluation Procedure (IEP) in accordance with New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering (NZSEE) guidelines. Based on the IEP results, and discussions with the building owner(s), the council decides if and when a structural upgrade is required. If an upgrade is required, the Building Consent Authority (BCA) processes the building consent application for upgrading the building to an agreed level. Buildings designed after 1976 are unlikely to be earthquake-prone unless they have a critical structural weakness from a design deficiency or unauthorised alteration.

The Nelson Mail