18 Apr 2024

Owners of earthquake prone buildings given four extra years to complete strengthening

9:00 am on 18 April 2024
Chris Penk

Minister for Building and Construction Chris Penk. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The government is giving owners of earthquake-prone buildings more time to complete strengthening work and bringing forward a review into the regulations.

The current rules put in place in 2017 require buildings to be remediated before set dates.

Minister for Building and Construction Chris Penk said owners would have four extra years to fix their buildings while the review took place.

He encouraged owners to use the extension "to continue to make improvements to their buildings, particularly due to the positive impacts that remediation has for insurance and their ability to get tenants".

Nearly 500 deadlines were set to expire over the next four years, he said.

"Councils and building owners have told me that many buildings will not meet their deadlines due to the high costs involved, further complicated by cumbersome heritage rules and ownership structures.

"Without change, a significant number of buildings could sit empty which would have a devastating impact on the economy in cities such as Wellington and provincial towns across New Zealand."

A review into the building code requirements was scheduled for 2027, this will now be brought forward - to start immediately.

"The review will be extensive and consider the appropriate risk settings to protect safety while ensuring the rules are workable to support businesses, increase economic activity and create jobs. The review will also look at the way overseas jurisdictions manage earthquake risk."

Penk told Morning Report at the moment, strengthening work was not getting done.

"So it doesn't matter if the government has good faith rules that were implemented nearly ten years ago to say thou shalt strengthen or demolish thou building, it aint happening."

Local government could still declare a building unsafe or unsanitary, he said.

The terms of reference would be agreed by Cabinet in May.

Tory Whanau

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau welcomed the announcement. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau said she was glad the minister moved quickly to announce the extension and had met with Penk to share the "astronomical costs" residents, council and business owners were facing to strengthen buildings.

There were 300 Wellington buildings needing to be strengthened by 2027, and about 300 by the early 2030s, she said.

"Without change there was a real risk council would be required to close some buildings with a crippling effect on owners and the city as a whole."

It was an extremely complex issue, she said.

"The closure of earthquake-prone buildings come with significant social and economic costs, resulting in an often unaffordable and unsustainable position for building owners."

'With time we can manage it'

Michael Ford - a commercial real estate agent by day - has been working with Local Government New Zealand and other council leaders to find solutions.

Ford said in Feilding seven buildings would have had to be demolished in less than four years.

"And we'd have a town centre that was destroyed by legislation and policy rather than an actual earthquake."

In low rent communities, in high and medium risk zones, the economic viability just often did not stack up, he said.

"Most of the buildings in our town add no value to the land and yet we're talking many hundreds of thousands of dollars to strengthen them and also there isn't necessarily money for redevelopment.

"These things just take time and with time we can manage it."

Asked what things could be done to balance the risk in the meantime, Ford said suggestions made include strengthening or building a verandah so in the case of a catastrophic earthquake the building facade would fall onto it, protecting people on the footpath.

Safe areas, which could be a steel cage inside a building, was also suggested.

"What we don't want is a whole lot of vacant buildings, or abandoned buildings."

Inner City Wellington seismic spokesperson Geraldine Murphy said they have been calling for a review for five years.

"Extending the deadlines doesn't actually address the fundamental issues, it takes a foot off the throat for a lot of owners."

Murphy said New Zealand did things differently than a lot of other places around the world and the standards needed to be more realistic.

"They don't have this one size fits all."

The burden on apartment was immense, she said, and the cost did not justify the number of lives that might be saved.

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