Parapets and facades prioritised in revised earthquake building law

  • Nick Smith
Building and Housing

A new category of priority buildings, covering parts of unreinforced masonry like parapets and facades, is to be included in the Building Act requirements for upgrading earthquake-prone buildings following strong submissions to select committee including from Canterbury earthquake survivor and Lincoln University lecturer Ann Brower, Building and Housing Minister Dr Nick Smith announced today. 

“We need to heed every possible lesson from the 22 February earthquake in Christchurch in rewriting the building laws to minimise future fatalities. Falling parts of unreinforced masonry like parapets and facades killed 35 people that tragic day, including every passenger on the Red Bus except Ann Brower. I pay tribute to her fastidious advocacy and professional research that has persuaded us to change the law and prioritise these buildings for upgrade. I also acknowledge the strong submissions from Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel and her council,” Dr Smith says. 

The Building (Earthquake-prone Buildings) Amendment Bill was reported back from Parliament’s Local Government and Environment Select Committee today. The Bill includes many changes that were announced by the Minister in May this year, such as zoning New Zealand into areas of low, medium and high risk, and the prioritising of education, hospital and emergency buildings. 

The significant change is adding a new category of priority buildings to cover those parts of an unreinforced masonry building like a parapet or veranda which could fall into a public road, footpath or other thoroughfare that has been identified by a council as having sufficient vehicle or pedestrian traffic to warrant prioritisation. It is estimated that some 2000 buildings nationwide will fall into this new category.

The effect of being a priority building is that the times for assessment and upgrade requirements are halved. In a high risk area, this means the assessments will need to be completed in two and a half years, instead of five, and upgraded within seven and a half years rather than 15. In a medium risk area, the assessments would need to occur in five years instead of 10, and the repairs within 12 and a half years, rather than 25. 

“These building law changes require a delicate balance between maximising public safety while minimising cost and the loss of heritage. These latest changes are about targeting the requirements at parts of buildings that pose the greatest risk in areas of high and medium seismic risk. We also believe there is an additional duty of care to protect people in a public place like a road or pedestrian walkway that justifies these buildings being given higher priority,” Dr Smith says.

“We do not want this new priority status being applied to buildings in areas where there are few people being put at risk. Councils will have the task of identifying those areas with sufficient vehicle or pedestrian traffic to justify the new priority category. Our expectation is that all commonly used retail areas like central business districts will be included. 

“I acknowledge the considerable effort made by the select committee and its chair Scott Simpson in refining this complex Bill and reporting it back to Parliament with unanimous support. This consensus approach is important in that the requirement to upgrade buildings will span many future governments. It gives tens of thousands of building owners certainty over the rules to enable important decisions to be made on upgrading or replacement.” 

The Bill as reported back to Parliament today will be subject to second reading, committee stages and third reading. The Government aims to have the legislation passed by the end of the year