Building & Construction Minister Nick Smith listed 12 initiatives this week, not just to rebuild after earthquakes but to learn from the events and improve New Zealand’s resilience to future earthquakes.
Dr Smith made his points on the steps being taken to improve management of earthquake risks in a Rotary address in Nelson, as local MP.
You can read his full address here: Better managing New Zealand’s earthquake risks
The Kaikoura earthquake on 14 November measured magnitude 7.8, making it the largest in New Zealand since 1855.
Dr Smith: “We are one of the most seismically active countries in the world and we need to be at the leading edge of protecting people, infrastructure & the economy from earthquakes.”
The initiatives, those already legislated and those still on the way:
- New Earthquake-prone Building Act
The first initiative is the new earthquake-prone building legislation passed by Parliament last May, which comes into effect in June this year.
The first major change in the new law is a nationally consistent approach. However, Dr Smith varied the timeframes for buildings to be assessed & upgraded relative to the variations in earthquake risk. In high risk areas like Wellington, upgrades must be done within 15 years, in medium risk areas like Nelson 25 years, and in low risk areas like Auckland 35 years.
We have set the standard of an earthquake-prone building as being one that is less than one third of the current seismic standard. It is not a guarantee of safety. It is a pragmatic balancing between cost & safety.
We have also introduced in the law the notion of priority buildings such as schools, hospitals & buildings on major pedestrian access ways and required that these be strengthened in half the standard times.
A further new requirement is that if a building owner is doing a substantial upgrade of an earthquake-prone building, they must simultaneously strengthen it to this minimum standard.
- Adding natural hazards to the RMA
The second major change is to the Resource Management Act, scheduled to be made law in March: “This is one of those areas where politics has got in the way of rational risk management.
The Act lists seven matters of national importance that must be addressed in every single plan and consent considered across the country… but there is no mention of natural hazards like earthquakes. This lacks common sense. New Zealand faces multiple natural hazard risks and it was a serious oversight that these risks are not a mandatory consideration for new developments.
“Let me give a practical example of why this law change is so important: The Bexley subdivision in Christchurch was approved under the RMA in the early 1990s despite publicly available reports identifying the low-lying areas as having a high risk of liquefaction in a moderate earthquake. The several-hundred-page council report on which this subdivision was approved systematically works through each of the issues identified in the principles section of the RMA as required legally. There are many pages on the landscape, cultural & vegetation issues, but the report is silent on the very significant earthquakes risks.
“The hundreds of Bexley residents whose lives were literally tipped upside down, and the taxpayers who ultimately paid out hundreds of millions from the subsequent red-zoning process, would have much preferred these risks were properly assessed in the first place.
“This important change to the RMA is in the substantive second phase bill of Government reforms due back from select committee in coming weeks and due to be passed into law in March.”
- Post-quake Building Act reform
Next, the management of buildings following a significant earthquake: “This involves real clashes of people’s relative rights, and decisions in a high risk aftershock environment where lives can be easily lost by the wrong decisions.”
Cabinet approved Dr Smith’s proposed revamp of the Building Act to deal with these issues a week before the Kaikoura quakes.
“The bill provides greater powers to get damaged buildings down more quickly, and provides a quite sophisticated balancing of rights between private property, safety & heritage issues. I will be introducing this bill into Parliament in March with the aim of having it as law by year’s end.”
- Improving consistency of building assessments
An associated area of work is improving the consistency of engineering assessments. New regulations will be finalised in April.
“This is relevant to the short sharp assessment done after an earthquake as well as in determining what buildings are earthquake prone.
“We have introduced a new guide for post-quake building assessment. Buildings are stickered as white, meaning OK for continued use, yellow for restricted access and red for unsafe. There was a lot of confusion during the Christchurch quakes by both engineers & the public on the old system, but the experience from the Kaikoura quakes is that we now have a system that is the world’s best practice, well understood and which strikes a better balance between risk & the need for communities to be able to move into recovery mode.
“The more complex job is the regulations currently being consulted on for the seismic assessment of earthquake-prone buildings. There is significant frustration from building owners that different engineers can give quite different assessments of the proportion of the new building standard that a building meets. There are real practical difficulties in making engineering assessments of buildings that may be 50 or 100 years old with very little knowledge of the standards of concrete, steel or construction in any records.
“We are currently developing regulations under this new law to get greater consistency in these assessments. The new regulations will be finalised in April.”
- Standards, training of engineers & accountability
This concerns regulations, ethics & training of engineering professionals, but also what requirements there are to pass on information about potentially dangerous structures and the question raised by the ability of an engineer to escape accountability by resigning from their professional association.
“We made an important change to the code of ethics last year that is pertinent to the tragic collapse of the CTV building in which 115 people were killed, 60% of the total toll from the Christchurch earthquake.
“Much has been written about the inadequacies of the design of this building constructed in 1986. I am hesitant to comment on the specifics with police due to announce a decision in the next few months on whether to prosecute the engineers responsible, albeit there is frustration that this decision is taking so long.
“The pertinent and relevant issue is that in 1993, when the building was for sale, it was assessed by consulting engineers as deficient in its seismic design. The client wisely opted not to buy the building on this advice, but the system failure was that this information was not passed on to the relevant building authority – in this case the Christchurch City Council.
“The problem here is that consulting engineers are bound by commercial contracts and the information belongs to their clients, and in this case the client had no interest beyond deciding not to purchase.
“Commercial interests & privacy concerns must in these circumstances take a back seat to public safety. That is why the code of ethics, with the support of the profession, was changed in July last year requiring engineers to pass on such information to relevant public authorities.
“A second issue that I am testing in the courts is the notion that professional accountability can be avoided by an engineer simply resigning from the professional body.
“The circumstances are that IPENZ (the Institution of Professional Engineers) appropriately initiated an investigation into the issues of engineering practice around the CTV building, but the process could not proceed simply by the engineer resigning. This not only deprives the public of a proper process of accountability but the profession of the critical learnings that must flow from such failures.
“The courts will determine a definition of what the current law states and, if it is found that accountability can be avoided by simply resigning, we will need to amend the law.
“Our government has also significantly lifted our investment in the training of professional engineers with over $90 million of additional funding. There are 2500 more students studying engineering mainly at Canterbury & Auckland Universities today than in 2008.”
- Powers for addressing newly identified risks
Strengthening how the Government & councils can respond to newly identified building risks: “We do not currently have in law the equivalent of a product recall system in our Building Act. An example of such a problem is where we find an engineer whose work is not up to scratch, as has recently occurred in Masterton.
“A prudent response is to require other building owners to have their building designs checked. The Government & councils can try to persuade building owners that this should be done, and generally, as in the Masterton case, owners have co-operated. Where we know a particular engineer’s work is flawed, we need to be able to check their other projects.
“Another example is the recent problem identified in the Statistics NZ building in Wellington, where 3 precast floor components collapsed. The preliminary investigation identified problems associated with the long duration and how ductile beams interacted with the precast floor slabs.
“Seismic building design is an evolving science and we will identify new risks like this that have not previously been sufficiently considered.
“This potential design flaw can be fixed, and the prudent response is to require all buildings recently constructed with these features to be checked and, where necessary, repaired.
“We are doing this in the Wellington area using the special Kaikoura earthquake powers, but this is an area where public authorities need wider powers to ensure our buildings are safe.”
- Tackling high risk parapets & façades post-Kaikoura
Dr Smith announced on Wednesday that an order-in-council would be issued for owners of 300 buildings in Wellington, Lower Hutt & Blenheim to be given a year to tie back unreinforced masonry façades & parapets, and that regulations would be put in place by the end of February. The Government will provide a 50% subsidy up to $15,000 for a façade and $10,000 for a parapet.
- Supporting heritage building upgrades
A new heritage earthquake upgrade incentive programme fund of $10 million has opened for the first round of bids.
- Improving tsunami warning systems
The areas most vulnerable to tsunamis are near major faults. Dr Smith said the risks were greatest where you have deep water rapidly become shallow, and confined bays that exacerbate wave height.
“The most effective strategy for reducing these risks is a well informed public & improved warning systems. The Ministers of Civil Defence and Science & Innovation announced a further $3 million investment in improving Geonet’s natural hazard monitoring in December, in response to concerns about incomplete & confusing information about the tsunami risk following the Kaikoura quake.
“The Government is also exploring a wider investment in smart-phone warning technology that would further improve our capacity to ensure people are better informed during such events.”
- Supporting innovative design
Dr Smith said the Government was stepping up its support for innovative design in seismic-resistant buildings: “The Earthquake Commission and the building & construction ministry [which as far as I can see is actually part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment] are funding new guidance for low damage building systems, including seismic isolation, buckling restrained braces and viscous damping. The Pres-Lam system is one of these, and the first building in the world to use it is the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.
“We should not underestimate the economic opportunities from these technologies. Countries like China & Turkey, who have lost hundreds of thousands of citizens in quakes and who are becoming a lot more wealthy, are looking for these sorts of technologies to step up their building safety.”
- Investing in seismic research
Seismic research is one of the Government’s 10 national science challenges, “which is why we are lifting our investment in improved science & engineering to support better earthquake resilience. New engineering research facilities have been built at both Auckland & Canterbury Universities.
“The natural hazards platform has been created with $14 million/year of funding to support improved research into all aspects of seismic design.”
- National policy on natural hazards
Dr Smith raised the prospect of a national policy statement on natural hazards in 2015, but said in his speech this week the Ministry for the Environment would start work on it this year.
He commented this week on councils’ questionable appreciation of risks: “I am not satisfied that councils sufficiently appreciated the scale of the sort of natural hazard risks that they are responsible for. It can be tempting to ignore significant risks in the hope that nothing happens.
“A current example is the challenges in the booming tourism community of Franz Josef.
This is one of the highest earthquake risk areas in the world, with the main alpine fault running through the town and significant movement of this fault projected every 80 years. This risk is compounded by the landslide risks of the foreboding surrounding country and the wild & dangerous Waiho River.
“We can design buildings that can withstand substantial shaking but, if a fault line rips through a building, there is little prospect of it remaining safe. Council had proposed to designate the area to prohibit any new structures in this strip but has come up against considerable resistance from property owners. It is currently proposing to drop the hazard zone.
“In a place like Franz Josef, where there can be more than 1000 tourists staying/night, there can be a tension between the local business interests and the national interests in ensuring the prudent management of safety of our visitors. The Government is working with the Westland District Council on these issues, but the example highlights the need for clearer national direction.
“This year the Ministry for the Environment will be starting work on a national policy statement on natural hazards to support the changes in the RMA.
“The purpose will be in strengthening the requirements & legal responsibilities on councils to ensure we more prudently manage these risks. This is a major piece of work that will take some years to complete, but will lay the national foundations for better long-term management of earthquakes & other natural hazards.”
18 November 2016: Ministry to investigate buildings’ performance in quake
15 August 2016: Property Council calls Government’s new heritage support fund “underwhelming”
17 April 2016: QuakeCore lab opens
3 September 2015: Property Council suggests measures to help quake-affected owners
3 September 2015: Government bows to quake survivor’s submissions
14 August 2015: Smith talks up firmer hand on environmental rules
3 July 2015: Council falls into line on quake-prone checks
25 June 2015: Select committee seeks feedback on quake-prone buildings bill changes
20 May 2015: Changes proposed for managing buildings in emergencies
10 May 2015: Government eases quake strengthening targets
7 March 2014: Quake-prone buildings bill introduced
Attribution: Smith speech.