The owners of dozens of buildings, almost all in greater Wellington, are unlikely to meet a looming Government deadline for securing potentially dangerous facades and parapets. Some of the delay, at least, has been caused by engineers worried about their own professional risks. David Williams reports.

A public safety issue raised by engineers in the wake of the Kaikoura earthquake has had its resolution delayed, ironically, by engineers.

Government regulations brought in a year ago to force some building owners to secure parapets and facades, or face fines of up to $200,000, followed two powerful engineering bodies writing to the Building Minister, fearing a repeat of Christchurch’s 2011 quake in greater Wellington.

The capital’s engineering firms are already excessively busy and some have batted away what is seen to be risky and complex work. Ultra-cautious firms have been refusing to help building owners – who were given only 12 months to comply with the Government order – because of their own potential liability, should the worst happen.

Government documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act suggest dozens of buildings will not comply by next month’s deadline. And while some property-owning laggards, who are struggling to find engineers and builders to do the work, will almost certainly get a six-month extension, the documents show the Government wants councils to take a hard line.

A draft Cabinet paper provided to Building Minister Jenny Salesa by the Business Ministry, MBIE on December 1 says the way in which property owners are dealt with in this case will set the tone for the next round of regulations – mandated strengthening work on so-called earthquake-prone buildings.

“Where building owners refuse to comply, or take no steps to secure their building by the deadline, I expect affected councils to take enforcement action,” the draft says.

(Salesa’s office acknowledged Newsroom’s multiple requests for an interview but never agreed to one.)

Heightened quake risk

Less than a month after November 2016’s 7.8 magnitude Kaikoura quake, the Society for Earthquake Engineering and the Structural Engineering Society wrote to then Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith with public safety concerns.

The submission said they were worried about the potential for older facades and appendages to fall into public spaces. They identified, in particular, commercial and retail areas in two Wellington suburbs – Newtown’s Riddiford St and Te Aro’s Cuba St – and Jackson St in Petone, Lower Hutt.

“The situation is assessed as potentially dangerous as there is low public awareness of the potential for a significant aftershock to cause collapse of facades,” the societies wrote.

Crown research institute GNS Science’s advice was that the quake left the upper South Island and lower North Island in a state of heightened potential seismicity. The risk of a quake that could damage so-called unreinforced masonry buildings – generally built between 1880 and 1935, with no steel, timber or fibre reinforcement – was double what it was normally.

While assuring Smith (who did not respond to a Newsroom request for comment) they wanted to avoid “widespread panic”, the engineering societies pointed to the “tragic lessons” from Christchurch’s February 2011 quake, in which 39 people died, and 110 were injured as a result of unreinforced masonry buildings failing.

“The societies believe that, given the current advice, we need to motivate owners to carry out securing of facades in the interests of public safety and the avoidance of a possible repeat of the loss of life that occurred in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.”

The Government’s response was to regulate, through what’s called an “order in council”.

It leaned on four councils – Wellington City, Hutt City, Marlborough District and Hurunui District – to identify potentially dangerous buildings in busy areas, using criteria conceived by MBIE. The need for building or resource consent was dispensed with, as long as the work was designed or reviewed by a chartered professional engineer. A fund of $4.5 million was established by the Government and councils to cover half the costs.

The councils then issued notices to 189 building owners on 38 named streets, giving them 12 months to secure the potentially frail facades and parapets. Almost all were in Wellington and Lower Hutt, with four were in Marlborough and Huruni.

But even owners with the best intentions have hit snags.

Official documents – MBIE’s advice to Building Minister Salesa – say the main reason for delays is affordability (one Wellington building faces a bill of $100,000-plus) and engineering capacity.

Heightened liability concerns

In an ironic twist, part of the reason for a delay in safety works – to prevent deaths in the result of an earthquake – is the potential liability for engineering firms should the safety works fail to prevent those deaths. It shows the effect on the industry of their peers being called to explain their work before the Royal Commission into the Canterbury quakes.

At a meeting on November 1 last year, some Wellington engineers told MBIE and council officials they wouldn’t work without a building consent – despite the order in council allowing that to happen, to speed up the process. Another source of anxiety was, despite the securing work done on peripheral elements, concerns the building, as a whole, still failed to meet the current building code.

An MBIE summary of the November 1 meeting said firms were reluctant to take on unreinforced masonry work because of the complexity and risk, especially “when there are simpler, newer projects to work on”.

The Society for Earthquake Engineering says it has written to firms, urging them to rise above their concerns and add work on unreinforced masonry buildings to their busy schedules.

Society executive officer Win Clark says: “It wasn’t a nice experience for a large number of engineers to have to front up to the commission. Engineers, particularly small firms, really can’t afford that – they have got to be very careful that they are covered in what they are doing; that their insurer is happy with what they’re doing.

He adds: “What we’ve been saying is the securing of the parapets and façade only needs to go a certain distance within the building. You’re not assessing the building as a whole and its earthquake-resistant capacity.”

The experience in Christchurch shows a “small intervention” can make a huge difference. He gives the example of two adjacent buildings of similar constructed. One had the façade bolted back into the framework and remained standing in the 2011 quake. The neighbouring building didn’t and the façade collapsed.

“We’re not saying that this work will get rid of the total risk; there is still a risk. What we’re trying to do is to as quickly as possible mitigate that risk by reducing the hazard of falling masonry.”

Clark says the securing work “needs to be done”. But given the industry’s capacity constraints (he confirms a handful of Auckland firms are plugging the gaps), he says councils and the Government need to be fair to owners who are doing the right thing.

Extension looms

Figures provided by the councils suggest 12 months was an overly ambitious time period. Proposals are with the Cabinet for a six-month extension, with an announcement expected next month.

An MBIE summary dated December 1 says of the 135 buildings still under notices, 46 were listed as “unlikely to meet the deadline” and work had not started on 43 more. That’s two-thirds of the total.

Updated figures from the councils say 112 buildings still have notices of them – 78 in Wellington (including two council buildings), 30 in Hutt City and two each in Marlborough and Hurunui (one of which is council-owned). If similar proportions hold, that’s 74 buildings in danger of not meeting the deadline.

Newsroom asked each council how many buildings it expected to meet the March deadline for completing the work.

Wellington City avoided a direct answer, saying it’s “a very fluid programme with a lot of moving parts”. Spokeswoman Jacqui Hastie says: “Right now, about 82 percent of building owners in the programme have work underway or almost complete.”

Hutt City Council’s building and quality assurance manager Derek Kerite says only a handful will make it. Hurunui says neither of the buildings, including its own, will be completed on time, while Marlborough says it “cannot determine yet” how many will comply.

Building Minister Salesa has offered carrots to foot-dragging building owners in recent months, fast-tracking reimbursements for engineering assessments and increasing the subsidy cap for work, up to $65,000.

(Crucial in lifting the cap was an estimated $1.46 million under-spend of the Government/council fund, thanks to fewer-than-expected properties needing securing work.)

Wellington’s Hastie says there’s real potential for enforcement action if building owners ignore the council’s notice. “If we don’t see securing work underway on these sites urgently these building owners will be receiving a number of strong messages from the council. This might include cordons around their building and/or prosecution.”

The $200,000 question for the Society for Earthquake Engineering’s Clark is how much action is enough to get you off a fine. It would be unfair to penalise those who have made a reasonable effort, in the face of practical constraints, he says.

On the other hand: “If you have done nothing – no question, you get donged.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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