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Spotlight back on quake strengthening

19 Dec 2016

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By Mike Toepfer, Aspiring Law Director

New earthquake strengthening legislation is well and truly back in the spotlight following last month’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the upper South Island and lower North Island – and all eyes are now on whether the new legislation’s implementation will be fast-tracked in light of the latest tremors.

The Canterbury earthquakes revealed problems with the systems for managing earthquake prone buildings (EPBs) under the Building Act 2004. These included variations in practices by different councils, poor information about the number and specific location of EPBs, and a lack of central government guidance.

As a result, after a lengthy process, Parliament enacted changes to the Building Act earlier this year. The intention of the changes is to balance the risk posed by EPBs with the significant cost and impact on heritage values of upgrading those buildings.

It is ironic the recent earthquakes struck shortly after, resulting in substantial damage to some buildings in Wellington which were previously thought would be safe in the event of an quake.

The main law changes include:

1.Defining what an earthquake prone building is

A building will be considered to be earthquake prone if, in the event of a moderate earthquake:

·Its ultimate capacity is likely to be exceeded

·A resulting collapse is likely to cause injury to a person or damage to property

The terms “moderate earthquakes” and “ultimate capacity” are to be defined in regulations which are yet to be released.

The definition of the threshold for a building to be defined as an “EPB” remains largely unchanged at less than 34 percent of the new building standard, although there are amendments to clarify aspects of that – for example, that it applies to part of a building. A national register of EPBs is to be established.

If a building is considered to be earthquake prone, then the territorial authority will serve the owner an earthquake prone building notice (to be known as an “EPB notice).

2.Risk areas

The Act has now divided the country into three distinct categories of earthquake risk. See http://beehive.govt.nz/sites/all/files/Map-of-new-risk-zones-for-strengthening.pdf to check out the zones.

3.Priority buildings

A new category of building has been introduced – “priority buildings”. These require urgent strengthening, and include the likes of hospitals and other facilities used by emergency services, schools and buildings which are regularly inhabited by 20 or more people, as well as those whose collapse could lead to masonry falling onto public roads or footpaths.

4.Time limits for assessment of buildings

A building in a high seismic risk zone must have an engineering assessment carried out within two and a-half years if it’s classed as a “priority building”, while other buildings must be assessed within five years. If an EPB notice is issued, any remedial work required must be completed within seven and a-half years for a priority building and within 15 years for any other building.

A priority building within the medium seismic risk zone must be assessed within five years, while others must be assessed within a decade. If an EPB notice is issued, remedial work must be completed within twelve and a-half years for a priority building and within 25 years for other buildings.

In a low seismic risk zone, all buildings must be assessed within 15 years, and any remedial work required must be completed within 35 years after the issue of an EPB notice.

5.Exemptions

An owner of an EPB can apply for an exemption from carrying out the required strengthening works. Owners of certain heritage buildings can also apply for an extension to the required completion date.

6.Buildings that have already been categorised

If a building has already been deemed to be earthquake prone, the following rules apply:

·If the existing deadline was later than the deadline under the new rules, then the existing deadline shall be brought forward to line up with the new rules

·Existing deadlines can be extended if the deadline under the new rules is later than the existing deadline, and the owner applies for an extension.

7.Alterations to existing buildings

Territorial authorities will not be able to grant building consents for alterations to the EPBs unless the building, post-alterations, will comply with the provisions of the Building Code relating to means of escape from fire, and access and facilities for people with disabilities. The EPB must also continue to comply with other aspects of the Building Code following the alterations to the same extent as it did before.

8.Failure to Upgrade

If a building owner fails to comply with the EPB notice, the building owner could face a fine of up to $200,000. Also, a council can apply to the District Court for an order authorising the council to carry out or complete the seismic work if the building owner fails to do so after receipt of an EPB notice.

After the new law comes into effect in May 2018, there will be a comprehensive framework in place for identifying and rectifying earthquake-prone buildings. Some owners will face compulsory seismic strengthening of their buildings, but the timeframes for carrying out that work have been adjusted to reflect the risk of an earthquake affecting their building.

However, recent events have shown that owners will never know whether their buildings will be affected in an earthquake. While the new rules are not intended to come into effect until mid-2018, it will be interesting to see whether the Governor General appoints an earlier date in light of the latest quakes.

Last updated 19 December 2016

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