Earthquake strengthening is now a huge concern for planners, builders and owners – and, because it’s a public safety issue, rightly so.
Unfortunately, the extent of its impact is only now being realised.
As an example, in Wellington about 600 buildings are listed on the MBIE Earthquake Prone Building register. Of those, around 300 are partly or wholly residential buildings, with approximately 40 being multi-unit, multi-ownership buildings (body corporate or company share), containing around 300 individual homes.
Under the Unit Titles Act, buildings held under body corporate arrangements require insurance but the cost of that in places such as Wellington has risen significantly in the years since the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes.
But it’s not only the relatively contemporary buildings in our major cities that have become the focus. Unprotected heritage areas, such as Auckland’s Vulcan Lane, could end up being redeveloped.
The impact is also being felt particularly hard in the small rural towns where much of our “traditional” New Zealand architecture is on display.
These towns currently face the very real prospect of owners electing to walk away or demolish rather than upgrade.
Many of these heritage buildings are made of unreinforced masonry. Even though they have stood the test of time and remain standing, they now fall short of what is required under the current building code standards.
The owners of typical URMs in the streets of regional towns frequently struggle to find tenants for the ground floor, let alone the upper floors. Rents are commensurately low and there is little margin for even routine maintenance, let alone the work necessary to commission design professionals for seismic reviews and documentation and implementation of seismic upgrading.
Assessing a building is an expensive, timeconsuming process for owners as they work to ensure they meet their obligations and reduce their liability.
Councils are stimulating the process of assessment in order to meet their obligations under the Act. That’s led them to making cursory inspections of buildings - in many cases just a “walk-past” assessment by an engineer. On the basis of that superficial evidence, building owners are having to obtain extensive (and expensive) engineering reports to validate the structural integrity of their buildings.
Once councils place stickers on buildings deemed to have a low NBS rating, it doesn’t take long for the tenants to move out, causing substantial financial loss for the owner and placing them in an even worse position from which to fund an expensive upgrade.
Complicating matters, rental returns in our smaller towns aren’t sufficient to justify the expensive assessments and upgrades needed to meet the NBS.
That means building owners are facing the hard question – upgrade or demolish?
Doing nothing is an unpalatable option as buildings are left to lie vacant, deteriorate over time and end up impacting adversely on the street environment.
In August 2016 the National Government launched the $12m Heritage Earthquake Upgrade Incentive Programme fund (Heritage EQUIP) to assist owners of heritage buildings with funding for seismic strengthening.
Since then we have had the Kaikoura Earthquake. The current Government’s response so far has been muted to say the least. Three years later in its 2019 Budget, it allocated only $10m for capital works. The money is to be provided as is a suspensory loan, available to owners of residential units in high seismic risk areas (such as Wellington), owners facing financial hardship, and for properties bought or acquired before 1 July 2017. There is little detail on how this will be implemented as yet.
We need to be encouraging better use of the expertise already available in New Zealand – and of the range of innovative technology increasingly being used in new builds.
A lot of that new engineering technology could provide simpler solutions to the expensive assessment process and help reduce a big chunk of the costs of upgrading.
For example, using tools such as acoustic scanning to assess buildings can lead to more informed first assessments. It is important owners engage specialist structural (seismic) engineers because good advice can often lead to better – and cheaper – engineering solutions.
Then, if the best of these technologies and engineering plans were made more readily available and easily accessible to architects, engineers and developers, it would lower consent and engineering costs and lead to safer outcomes achieved faster.
We need to give owners of heritage buildings and apartment blocks much better support so they’re in a position to protect their buildings and the people who live in them.