Mixed reaction to advice that quake-prone buildings can be occupied

Kate Nicol-Williams
Source: 1News

New guidance advising people can occupy earthquake-prone buildings in most cases has been welcomed, but there are calls for greater clarity to help building owners and occupiers make decisions.

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster said the new guidance is useful.

"What we don't want to see is that people get a piece of advice about a building and just automatically say ‘well I've got to get out of that building.'"

"We've 600-plus buildings in Wellington which are actually earthquake-prone and they all have a time frame over which they've got to be strengthened and people are able to occupy and use those during that time frame."

"That's the way the law is supposed to work," Foster said.

Buildings with a New Building Standard rating below 34% are determined prone to damage in an earthquake.

This is the threshold for building owners to be required to fix their building within the timeframe specified for the seismic risk of the region.

New Building Standard ratings are given as part of a seismic assessment.

"While a low %NBS (% New Building Standard) rating does indicate a heightened life safety risk in the event that an earthquake occurs, it does not mean that the building is imminently dangerous," the new MBIE guidance states.

MBIE has clarified there is no legal requirement to close a building based solely on a low NBS rating.

Foster is however calling for more certainty from MBIE on what rules building owners have to follow after strengthening requirements were updated.

When asked if he was disappointed the advice hadn't been released earlier given the impact it had on Wellingtonians after various public facilities closed, he said "it's not fair to be disappointed".

"I think we're constantly learning, different quakes over last decade... Kaikoura, Seddon... constant learning process."

Engineering New Zealand chief executive Dr Richard Templer said in a press release the guidance does an "excellent job" of helping building occupants have a better understanding of seismic risk and provides context to the purpose of New Building Standard ratings.

But he stated more guidance is required from MIBE to clarify what the legal obligations of decision markers are, particularly around the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

MBIE manager of building performance and engineering Dave Gittings said releasing the advice on what the NBS was and what it’s not was always part of MBIE’s planned work. The release had been sped up because of buildings such as Wellington City Library, Hutt Hospital and Mātauranga House which houses the Ministry of Education having earthquake risks detected.

The owner of Mātauranga House has threated the ministry with legal action for defamation after the Education Ministry’s 1000 staff vacated the premises before a detailed seismic assessment was carried out.

"Guidance like this will be invaluable for those who are put into that position of having to make those decisions," Gittings said.

"I think we've done it as quickly as we could."

Gittings said Worksafe’s website has been updated to refer to this advice.

He said building owners and occupiers need to consider a range of factors when making occupancy decisions, and not just base these decisions on earthquake-prone status.

There are over 4200 buildings that have been determined earthquake-prone and MBIE says there are many more that are considered seismically vulnerable.

When asked what he would say to workers and members of the public in earthquake-prone buildings, Gittings said he understood their concerns but asked them to put the risk of death in an earthquake into perspective.

"We live in a seismically active country and that is a risk that we take living in a country such as this… so the one in a million chance of loss of life for a new building, 30/40 in a million for something that is the worst of the worst earthquake-prone buildings… but even getting to work, you’re probably more at risk getting to work with a chance of loss of life for one in fifteen, one in twenty thousand than you are actually being in the building that you work in."

"I think it's all relative risk but it has to be balanced, it's a risky world," he said.

Inner City Wellington earthquake-prone building spokesperson Geraldine Murphy said the advice is welcomed but has come too late as central Government, local government and business decisions to leave have already created a damaging perception of occupying earthquake-prone spaces.

Murphy said misconceptions around NBS ratings are just one part of earthquake legislation that has gone further than it was intended to, in her opinion.

"Buildings that are not the worst of the worst are being picked up so something's wrong," she said.

Murphy said the legislation should be reviewed, and if the Government intends to continue on the same path, adequate funding to help property owners strengthen their properties is required.