Building Seismic Performance consultation

Earthquake-prone buildings consultation video

This video explains proposed changes to the system for dealing with earthquake-prone buildings in New Zealand. You can make a submission on the proposals until 8 March 2013. The video aims to improve understanding of the proposed changes to help people make submissions.

The video explains:

  • issues around earthquake risk in New Zealand
  • the current earthquake-prone buildings system
  • the proposed changes.

The proposals would mean that all commercial buildings would have to have a seismic capacity assessment within five years. Owners of buildings assessed as earthquake-prone would then have up to 10 years to strengthen or demolish them.

For more information, and to make a submission, visit the link below for:

  • a consultation document explaining the proposed changes
  • a schedule of public information meetings
  • an online response form.

Building seismic performance consultation

Duration: 14:43 minutes


Opening sequence (no voice-over)

Presenter (Richard Langston)

The earthquake of February 22nd in Christchurch has changed us - not just Cantabrians, it’s changed us all. The way we look at our cities and our towns and how those buildings might protect us during an earthquake. What we want to explain in this DVD is the system that manages those buildings, the laws and the regulations, and how we might change that system in the future with the aim of making our buildings safer.


It’s estimated that as many as twenty five thousand commercial buildings in New Zealand are earthquake-prone.

In April 2011 the Government set up the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission to inquire into building failure as a result of the earthquakes. The Royal Commission has now completed its task and has made 189 recommendations on how it thinks we could make buildings safer.

Separately, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has also been reviewing the system for dealing with earthquake-prone buildings.

David Kelly is leading the Ministry’s response to the Canterbury Earthquakes. He explains that while the Ministry and the Royal Commission investigations were different, the conclusions reached are basically similar.

David Kelly (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment)

The Royal Commission took the approach of hearing evidence calling expert witnesses and thinking about what they were presenting and they’ve come to their conclusions.

The Ministry’s taken a different approach over the last year and thought about the broader analysis from a whole of country perspective.

In the end there’s been two complimentary approaches. I think what’s been nice is that they are largely aligned, albeit that there are some differences that we will need to work through. And so what we want to do is put the broader perspective in front of people and work through and really listen hard to what people think.


Despite the recent tragic loss of life in Christchurch, the evidence shows that the risks to our safety from earthquakes continue to be pretty low.

British risk expert Tony Taig has been advising the Ministry. He believes the risks from earthquakes should be kept in perspective.

Tony Taig (UK risk management expert)

Let’s come to New Zealand and think about risks to our lives, and since motor transport began or European colonisation began probably something like forty thousand people have died on the roads in New Zealand and four or five hundred have died in earthquakes. So, averaged over the whole population over a long time, far, far more of us in New Zealand are going to die on the roads than we do from earthquakes.


Fortunately extremely strong earthquakes like those in Christchurch occur only rarely in New Zealand, but when an earthquake is that severe even modern buildings can be vulnerable.


What we have to bear in mind is there is no such thing as an earthquake proof building. If the earthquake is strong enough buildings will fail. Even this modern apartment block in Christchurch is now being demolished. So what the system has to do is strike a balance between saving lives and the huge cost of strengthening buildings.


Around two thirds of those who lost their lives in the Canterbury earthquakes died when two relatively modern buildings collapsed, the Canterbury Television or CTV Building and the Pyne Gould Corporation Building.

Tony Taig

If you look away from those two buildings, most people were killed by older what they call unreinforced masonry buildings, brick and stone buildings held together with mortar. But it’s quite an interestingly different pattern there, it wasn’t mostly the people in those buildings that were killed it was the facades that collapsed or the walls at the edge that collapsed and it was the people around those buildings on the pavement outside or on buses and cars outside who carried most of the casualty burden.


Currently the responsibility for managing earthquake-prone buildings rests with local councils. But this system isn’t working well – some councils are very pro-active in managing earthquake-prone buildings, while others have taken a hands-off approach.

David Kelly

At the moment councils are able to set their own policies, particularly around timeframes for identifying earthquake-prone buildings and then setting times for them to be strengthened or demolished. So at one end of the spectrum, for instance, we have Wellington City Council who’ve taken quite an active approach in identifying and setting timeframes and in fact making public some of the buildings that are earthquake-prone. But on the other end of the spectrum there are some councils that have taken a more passive or reactive approach and really only require something to be done when building owners are coming in for major renovation.


The Ministry is proposing that all councils be required to identify the earthquake-prone buildings in their areas within five years.

Wellington City is one of the few councils that have already assessed all their buildings. Neville Brown is in charge of earthquake resilience for the city and he explains how its assessment process works.

Neville Brown (Wellington City Council)

When we get the assessment back we write to the owner formally and advise him that the assessment’s been done and based on the information that we’ve assessed the building is either earthquake-prone or it’s not.


If the building is deemed to be earthquake-prone the building owner can either accept this assessment or take issue with it.

Neville Brown

He could engage a structural engineer to do a detailed engineering assessment. So on the receipt of that detailed engineering assessment then we would review what the engineer has put in front of us. If it’s not earthquake-prone from the original assessment then that’s the end of the matter.


After an earthquake it’s critical that emergency services can operate as quickly as possible. In Wellington the council has prioritised the assessment of key buildings like fire stations and hospitals. And this is the approach the Ministry is also recommending.

Neville Brown

Part of our assessments, we are very conscious of buildings that would be needed in an emergency or in the recovery phase after an emergency. Places like the building behind us, the ambulance stations, civil defence centres, all of those buildings were assessed pretty early on in our process.

Equally, we’re very keen to make sure that our strategic routes are as clear as they possibly can be, so we also assessed the buildings on either side of those routes quite early on.


The Ministry is proposing that all building owners would be able to challenge their council’s assessment of the earthquake risk of their building. Again, Wellington already runs a similar process.

Neville Brown

All our work is done by engineers, structural engineers and so it’s them putting forward a particular situation to the building owner and of course he has the right to agree, disagree or contest.


The Ministry believes New Zealanders need to have a greater awareness of the safety of buildings they use or even just walk past. It recommends that each individual building assessment be placed on a national register that can be easily accessed by the public.

The Ministry is also proposing that once assessment is completed within the five year timeframe, buildings should be either strengthened or demolished within ten years. That means all earthquake-prone buildings would be dealt with within a maximum of 15 years.

By contrast, it is taking an average of twenty-eight years across New Zealand under the current system for these buildings to be dealt with. Some building owners are taking action without prompting from councils.

Neville Brown

So this is an example of a proactive building owner who’s got a very large building, one of the largest in Wellington, who’s assessment of the building was not earthquake-prone, but not at a level that he was comfortable offering to his tenants. So he’s embarked on what we understand to be a thirty-plus million dollar project that’s going to involve strengthening right up the building, and what you can see behind us is the start of columns being wrapped with carbon fibre and also some concrete and reinforcing steel around one of the ring beams that hold the building up.


If a building is assessed as being earthquake-prone, the Ministry is proposing the owner would have one year to submit their plans for strengthening or demolition to their council.

The Ministry recommends that the owners of buildings that are rarely used and in remote locations, like farm out-buildings or rural churches, be given longer timeframes in which to strengthen, or even be exempted.

Overall the Royal Commission and the Ministry are making fundamentally similar recommendations. For example, both propose keeping the existing threshold for defining a building as earthquake-prone– so if a building is less than one third of the requirement for a new building, it will be classified as earthquake-prone.

However there are three main areas where the Royal Commission’s recommendations differ from the Ministry’s proposals.

David Kelly

The Royal Commission would like to see some faster timeframes, particularly for unreinforced masonry buildings, and higher standards than we have recommended. Secondly they have recommended that local authorities should have some powers to move faster than the national requirements, and thirdly they’d like to see powers for councils around housing and in particular what they have talked about is unreinforced masonry chimneys and the power to have them strengthened or removed.


One of the key areas the Ministry would like to hear people’s views on is whether building owners planning to strengthen should be required to upgrade fire escapes and access for people with disabilities to as near as reasonably practicable to current Building Code requirements.

David Kelly

Under the current legislation, commercial buildings, if they are upgraded, are required to do two things. One is to upgrade fire code requirements to the current Code and the second is to upgrade disabled access to the current Code, and the Royal Commission heard evidence from property owners who were saying that the requirement to upgrade for disabled was a potentially significantly deterrent to them to upgrade because of the cost, so the Royal Commission have raised it as a question as to whether that should be a requirement.

(Presenter – so what are you trying to do now?)

Well, what we’d like to find out from building owners and others is, is this actually a problem and how big a problem is that, because at the moment we don’t know the size of the problem. So what we want is real evidence to base any decisions on.


Many of the estimated twenty five thousand earthquake-prone buildings in New Zealand have significant heritage value – this means we face some tough choices around the cost of saving our towns’ and cities’ historic buildings.

Bruce Chapman of the Historic Places Trust says they have already spoken with many councils about how they might approach preserving their heritage buildings – but he would like to hear more from them.

Bruce Chapman, New Zealand Historic Places Trust

Realistically, I am not sure that we are going to be able to save all of them, but the key thing for us is to ensure that strengthening is considered an option instead of demolition, that we don’t make an assumption that demolition is always the cheapest or the best option. There are low cost and sympathetic ways of strengthening heritage buildings. There are qualified structural engineers who have experience in New Zealand and around the world in strengthening unreinforced masonry buildings. The costs of it aren’t necessarily as high as one might imagine. But we need the opportunity to consider those options.


So, to recap. The main changes being proposed by the Ministry are that all commercial buildings must be assessed within five years, and if they are earthquake-prone they must be strengthened or demolished within 10 years. That means all earthquake-prone buildings will be dealt with within 15 years, compared with an average of 28 years across New Zealand under the current system.

One hundred and eighty five people lost their lives in the Canterbury earthquakes. It’s important that we identify the lessons and make the right changes to our building system as a result of the tragedy.

Neville Brown

What Christchurch has done is alert people to the level of devastation that has occurred, and I guess most of the building owners that I talk to are very committed to ensuring we don’t see the same level of devastation here in Wellington. And so that has encouraged them to get active in the strengthening process.


So where to from here? Well, you can read about the options we’ve discussed today at this website:

You can read the consultation document on the website to learn about these proposals in more detail.

There’ll also be a series of public meetings in the main centres where you can ask questions.

Remember, submissions close on March the 8th.

But it is important that we hear from you, because the decisions that we make now could save lives in the future.