New rules will cost $700m extra

HAMISH RUTHERFORD AND MICHELLE COOKE
Last updated 13:43 07/12/2012
Collapsing unreinforced masonry buildings killed dozens

Collapsing unreinforced masonry buildings killed dozens of shoppers and bus users in February.

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Government plans to have all earthquake-prone buildings strengthened within 15 years have been welcomed by a lobby group representing many of the country's commercial property owners.

Property Council chief executive Connal Townsend said the draft proposals released today provide welcome recommendations that appear to balance practical solutions with the highest safety benefits.

The proposed five-step risk rating system would allow the public to be much better informed about a building's level of resilience, he said. He also supported Government's proposed timeframes for assessing and upgrading buildings.

But the huge cost of this work would largely fall on building owners and he called on Government to allow them to claim depreciation on their buildings.

"Owners of heritage and character properties in particular, will find the cost of earthquake strengthening prohibitive. If we want to prevent owners from walking away, leaving properties vacant and tenantless, the Government needs to address this imbalance in the tax system," Townsend said.

It was announced earlier today that commercial and multi-storey residential buildings in New Zealand will have to be assessed for seismic strength within five years under government recommendations in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake.

The Royal Commission released its findings into the failure of 21 buildings during the Christchurch Earthquake in February 2011, in which 42 people were killed.

The commission's report makes 36 recommendations including changes to New Zealand's building legislation. The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) made its own proposals, which form part of a consultation document.

The ministry's proposals outline recommendations for how to handle the estimated 15,000-25,000 earthquake prone buildings in New Zealand.

An earthquake-prone building is defined as one that is likely to collapse in a moderate earthquake or which is less than 33 per cent of the building standard.

The document recommends a national policy for assessing buildings, as well as cutting the time that owners have to strengthen earthquake prone buildings, from an average of 28 years, to just 15 years.

Crucially, the current threshold for earthquake-prone buildings, often referred to as 34 per cent of the new building standard, will not be raised.

Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson estimated that raising the standard to 67 per cent would cost more than $12 billion over the next five years. He said the recommendations were an attempt to strike a balance between safety and cost.

The new measures were expected to add about $700 million to the cost of bringing New Zealand's earthquake prone buildings up to standard, on top of the $1b cost under the current rules.

Many of today's recommendations cover buildings with unreinforced masonry, and include:

- Falling hazards such as chimneys and ornaments, for even single unit residential buildings, must be reinforced or dismantled.

- Local authorities could be given the power to require unreinforced masonry buildings to be strengthened within two years. It does, however, give scope for buildings such as rarely used rural churches to be allowed to be exempt.

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- A new grading system, ranging from A to E, will be established to assist public knowledge of building strength.

The recommendations of the commission and MBIE differ on several key points, mainly related to the speed with which buildings much be assessed and strengthened.

While the commission recommended commercial and multi-unit residential buildings have two years to be assessed and five years to be brought up to acceptable standards, the ministry recommended five years to assess and 15 to strengthen.

The commission also recommended that unreinforced masonry be strengthened within two years. The ministry meanwhile recommends building owners be given five years, although with scope to prioritise high risk buildings such as those on key traffic routes.

Williamson said that 15 years for assessments and strengthening was a "realistic timeframe" in the ministry's view.

"We must ensure the earthquake-prone buildings system strikes an acceptable balance between protecting people from serious harm and managing the huge economic costs of strengthening or removing the most vulnerable buildings," he said.

The cost to strengthen all earthquake prone buildings under the current system, which has a timeframe of 28 years, is $933m. It would be $1.68b under the ministry's recommendation of 15 years.

"It's a risk based calculation...what is the probability of this event occurring [again]?" Williamson said.

With some exceptions, the majority of buildings in Canterbury stood up well during the quake, he said.

"Look at Hotel Grand Chancellor, it did its job. It was completely munted...but nobody died."

An earthquake-prone building is defined as one that is likely to collapse in a moderate earthquake or which is less than 33 per cent of the building standard.

Today's report was the fourth of seven volumes and includes the commission's findings on the failure of 21 buildings, and a free-standing masonry wall, which caused the deaths of 42 people in the February 22 quake. In total 185 people were killed.

A report on the investigation into the PGC building 18 people died has already been released in earlier volumes, and the report into the CTV building where 115 people were killed, was delivered to the Governor-General last month and is expected to be made public by the end of the year.

Today's report also makes recommendations for best practice, policy and legislation to help minimise the risks to public safety from vulnerable buildings during an earthquakes, but is not binding on the Government.

Most of those killed in the February quake, excluding those who died in the PGC or CTV buildings, were killed by falling debris when they were walking past a building, sitting in a vehicle outside a building, or had run out of a building to escape. Six people were in a neighbouring building when they were killed by falling walls or unreinforced masonry from another building and four people were killed by the building they were in.

Thirty six of the 42 deaths investigated in the report occurred within the CBD and the other six were in Christchurch suburbs.

All but one were caused by older unreinforced masonry buildings or brick or block structures.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said 18 people died in the PricewaterhouseCoopers building. This should have been the PGC building.

- Fairfax Media

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