23 Aug 2018

Carpenters could be the key to fixing quake-prone buildings

8:06 am on 23 August 2018

Engineers say most of the earthquake-prone buildings in small towns could be fixed relatively simply and inexpensively, without involving them directly at all.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Councils in high quake-risk zones are warning the government that historic main streets in the provinces will be decimated if recently tightened deadlines to upgrade or demolish buildings are not relaxed.

John Hare of Engineering New Zealand agreed the law changes for earthquake-prone buildings last year did not go further enough to take into account the different risks between, for example, a small town in Manawatū or Rangitikei, and Wellington.

"They've got a pretty fair point when they say that if they are to enact all that legislation, you're going to end up with the entire centre of Feilding basically as a parking lot," Mr Hare said.

The 2017 legislation was widely consulted on, but was wrong in applying a one-size-fits-all model in high-risk zones, he said.

"What we can do though, is come up with a whole lot of much simpler, easier fixes for those buildings which don't require a whole lot of specific design."

In fact, many generic designs were already being worked on "behind the scenes" which could be adopted, for instance, to secure the parapets of old buildings, without any direct involvement by an engineer, he said.

"We can do our level best by just bolting them back to the structure in behind that...we've already got, developed in many cases, generic solutions which will resolve the majority of these cases.

"It won't make them perfect but it'll make them considerably better and remove the majority of the risk."

Perhaps 80 percent of small-town buildings - typically two-storey masonry ones with verandahs - were in this category; and 20 percent were more difficult and would need specific engineering, he said.

It's unclear what impact heritage rules might have on that.

"I don't think we need to be flying engineers in there, I think we need to be flying in carpenters."

The key was to get this message out to councils, he said.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment also needed to enlist engineers' help, he said, as part of the investigation into the quake-prone economic problem facing provincial towns that Building Minister Jenny Salesa last week ordered it to do.

The whole country needed to take a closer look at what earthquake risks were faced, and where, in a way people could understand, Mr Hare said.

"I think Christchurch [the 2011 earthquake] has been a bit of a wasted reminder.

"If we don't look back to Christchurch and see what happened there, and see the outcomes we weren't happy with, and then apply those lessons to places like Wellington and other cities, then we won't really have learnt from that."