Our Quake-risk Buildings: Mayor Seeks Review

10 September 2010

Wellington Mayor Kerry Prendergast is calling for a review of the Council's earthquake-strengthening policies.

She says the Christchurch earthquake has refocused Wellingtonians' minds on the big question: how do we strengthen buildings and retain our heritage without financially crippling building owners or compromising the safety of people in and around old, unstrengthened, buildings?

"The Council has received a large number of calls this week from people who live or work in hundreds of buildings around the city that are still to be quake-strengthened.

"They are asking questions like 'which part of the building should I take refuge in if it's old and unstrengthened and the Big One hits?'

"There's clearly heightened anxiety around the city as people have seen the chilling and heartbreaking images of old, historic buildings either destroyed in the quake or being demolished in its aftermath.

"I'd like Council officers to take another look at our quake-prone building policy to see whether there are changes we can make to speed up the strengthening programme."

In 2009 the Council agreed to slightly relax some provisions in its quake-prone policy - giving some building owners up to 20 years before they have to carry out strengthening work. Policy changes also included adding a number of alternative measures such as targeted strengthening and staged strengthening to allow owners to progressively improve their buildings.

"We did this because many building owners told us they simply cannot afford the potentially huge costs of structural strengthening in the near future.

"However, the Christchurch experience has clearly shown us that if Wellington is hit by a similarly-sized quake we risk losing many lives, as well as many fantastic old buildings that are the soul of areas like Cuba Street, Courtenay Place and our older suburbs.

"Personally, I now look at some parts of the city in a different light as a result of what I've seen in Christchurch and I'm far from happy that so many buildings remain unstrengthened."

Mayor Prendergast says she would ask staff to canvas a number of issues including whether the Council should:

  • revisit the review of the quake-prone buildings policy with a view to tightening the deadlines again
  • seek relaxation, where appropriate, of heritage rules to allow more latitude and flexibility in strengthening work. This could include the replacement of heavy masonry features like parapets or chimneys with replicas built from light materials like glass-fibre, timber or carbon-fibre.
  • consider changes to District Plan rules to allow the demolition of some older buildings with less heritage value
  • look at rule changes to force some building owners, if they can't afford to strengthen, to remove heavy and dangerous features like parapets and chimneys from the roofs and facades of some buildings
  • increase grant funding to help more building owners complete strengthening work.

The Council's ongoing quake-prone programme has identified about 3800 mainly older commercial and multi-unit apartment buildings around the city as potentially quake-prone under the more stringent definitions in the revised Building Act 2004.

Council engineers and consultants are about halfway through the process of either removing buildings from the quake-prone list or informing the owners that strengthening work is necessary.

"They have extrapolated that around 600 buildings around the city may need strengthening," says Mayor Prendergast.

"This is a difficult situation and a real challenge. My preference is that these buildings are not demolished to the extent that the city loses a lot of its soul. At the same time, I don't want to see lives put at risk."