Calls for faster action on 900 quake-prone buildings in Christchurch

Fenced off areas in High St in central Christchurch.
DEAN KOZANIC/FAIRFAX NZ

Fenced off areas in High St in central Christchurch.

The North Canterbury earthquake has triggered renewed calls for faster action on earthquake-prone buildings, despite new laws designed to speed up the process.

Attention has fallen on buildings such as the Hurunui Hotel, where owners had 25 years to do remedial work despite engineers warning it was unsafe after the Christchurch earthquakes. The hotel was further damaged in the magnitude 7.8 earthquake last month.

Ann Brower, the only passenger to survive a building collapsing on a bus in Colombo St in the February 2011 earthquake, urged building owners to have a conscience.

The Historic Hurunui Hotel between Waikari and Culverden has been red stickered because of serious structural damage.
Stacy Squires

The Historic Hurunui Hotel between Waikari and Culverden has been red stickered because of serious structural damage.

"It's nice to wait for the Government to solve our problems, but it can't.

"There is a moral imperative not to kill your customers," Brower said.

"It's like a speed limit, it's a maximum not a minimum and it's not always safe. Just because you've got 25 years, that's not a moral licence to take 24 and a half years."

Buildings evacuated in Wellington after the latest earthquakes.
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

Buildings evacuated in Wellington after the latest earthquakes.

Law changes to take effect next year will require buildings in seismically active areas including Christchurch and Wellington to be assessed within five years and strengthened within 15, with extensions for heritage buildings.

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel said the Christchurch City Council remained limited legally with what it could do about earthquake-prone buildings.

They could only act quickly where buildings were immediately dangerous, she said. Legally they had to follow their policy and its strengthening timeframes where earthquake-prone buildings were not considered an immediate risk.

"They could be dangerous in future earthquakes, but that doesn't change the fact that they are not covered by the Building Act as a dangerous building."

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The city council pushed for stronger controls than the original bill proposed, and achieved some such as the power to remove precarious fixtures and prioritise more urgent cases.

Dalziel said the new laws were "heading in the right direction". 

Peter Smith, president of the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering said they were concerned at the issue and "looking at initiatives and in talks" about getting more action. He declined to detail what the initiatives were or whether they were talking to government.

"We're worried that what happened in Christchurch in 2011 could happen again. The reality is, aftershocks can have a severe effect."

Timeframes of 10 or 20 years "did not mean anything" when faced with the power of earthquakes, Smith said.

"I sat through 35 (Canterbury Earthquakes) Royal Commission hearings where people were killed by building facades." 

He appealed to all owners of quake-prone buildings within the recent earthquake zone to take action. Unstable walls and facades should be made secure even if full strengthening would take longer, he said.

Owners of one Christchurch building who have strengthened their building were concerned at owners who had not done the same.

The Arts family spent $250,000 strengthening their brick heritage High St building before the Christchurch earthquakes, plus about $100,000 of their insurers money since.

Nicky Arts "absolutely" recommended others do the same if possible.

"I wouldn't want it on my conscience if it hurt someone."

Arts said some Canterbury property owners deserved to end up in court if they neglected their responsibilities, and lives were lost.

However she understood why owners in some cases had not acted. Taller buildings, badly damaged buildings and those with severe damage were much more complicated and costly to upgrade. 

Her family found the work costly and time-consuming, engineers scarce, dealing with insurers exhausting, and administration a nightmare.

The city council has over 900 buildings on its earthquake-prone list.

Tailorspace Ltd owns five of those and chief executive Brett Gamble said it was "a good question" why they remained standing and out-of-bounds. The fate of some remained undecided, he said.

"The latest earthquakes have reminded us that they are a risk, and we do need to bring some of them down." 

Gamble said it was a concern that members of the public were getting behind the barriers and into the buildings when they were unsafe.

Gordon Chamberlain of Crystal Imports Ltd owns the earthquake-prone former Post Office and Telecom complex in Cathedral Square, and said his was one of the properties still tied up in insurance wrangles.

"My engineers tell me that we only meet about 30 per cent of the full existing code requirements for strengthening, so a lot of work will be required"

 

 - Stuff

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