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Quake-prone buildings: where are we at?

14 Nov 2018

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With Mike Toepfer, Director

Invercargill City Council’s decision earlier this year to abruptly close the Southland Museum and Art Gallery shone the spotlight back on earthquake strengthening, and serves as a reminder to all owners and occupiers of commercial buildings of the new laws now at play.

Comprising several buildings built between 1940 and 1988, the complex had its doors suddenly shut in mid-April, following safety concerns raised by a 2013 seismic assessment, concerns which were subsequently reiterated in a peer review.

Experts assessed the museum and art gallery as achieving only 30 percent of the new building standards (NBS), rather than the 34 per cent or more which is now required for a building to be considered safe enough to remain open for use.

The decision resulted in protests, with one architect maintaining that the assessment was flawed, and that the museum actually achieves 50 percent of “NBS”, rather than 30 percent.

This controversy comes in spite of the Building (Earthquake Prone Buildings) Amendment Act 2016, which came into effect last July. It was designed to ensure the way earthquake-prone buildings (EPBs) are identified and managed under the Building Act is consistent across New Zealand.

More recently, and closer to home, Cromwell Memorial Hall was also identified as at-risk, with a seismic assessment reportedly finding it was 10-15 percent of the NBS, but has kept its doors open for now. The Luggate Memorial Hall was also closed by the Queenstown Lakes District Council in August 2017 when it was estimated as meeting 15 percent of the NBS.

The Amendment Act categorises New Zealand into three seismic risk areas (high, medium and low), and sets time frames for identifying and taking action to strengthen or remove earthquake-prone buildings.

It also provides more information for people using buildings, such as nationally-consistent EPB notices, with ratings for at-risk buildings recorded in a public earthquake-prone buildings register.

The new system requires:

  • Councils to identify potentially earthquake-prone buildings
  • Councils to decide whether buildings are earthquake prone, assign ratings, issue notices and publish information about the buildings on the public register
  • Owners, who are notified by the council, to obtain engineering assessments of the building, carried out by suitably-qualified engineers
  • Owners to display notices on any sub-standard buildings, and to remediate it so that it meets the required minimum standards

If a building is classified as a “priority building”, due to its construction, type or location, it must be remediated in half of the time allowed for other buildings in the area.

The Southland Museum case is a high-profile example of a council working through the process of assessing and dealing with an earthquake-prone building, and, undoubtedly, there will be plenty more cases to come.

The Central Otago District Council is currently working on a policy for dealing with earthquake-prone buildings in its area.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council recently announced it has identified 45 buildings as potentially earthquake prone. To ensure the list is accurate, QLDC will be sending letters to owners asking for evidence that their building has either been strengthened to at least 34 percent of the new building standard, or that it is outside the profiling categories, as set down by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment. Building owners will be asked to supply this evidence within six weeks.

However, if proof isn’t forthcoming, the Council says owners will then receive a formal notice asking for either an Initial Seismic Assessment or a Detailed Seismic Assessment.

The Council also plans to embark on a public consultation process in the New Year seeking feedback around the buildings and thoroughfares which have been categorised as priority or high risk. Details of the consultation process are expected soon.

Many of our clients buy investment properties, or lease premises, in various parts of the country. If you are considering buying or occupying a building, there are several variables when it comes to considerations and risks, so give us a call first-up for some initial advice, and be sure to check out the Earthquake-prone building register to see whether the building you are dealing with already features.

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