Unreinforced masonry a risk to life safety

Posted: 23 March 2017

Building owners in certain areas of Wellington, Lower Hutt, Marlborough and Hurunui will need to secure unreinforced masonry (URM) parapets and facades on their buildings if requested by a council, following a requirement introduced by the government in February.

The requirement is a response to heightened concern about URM buildings following the large Kaikōura earthquake on 14 November 2016 and based on experiences in the Canterbury earthquakes.

A number of URM buildings were affected in the 4 September 2010 Darfield earthquake, with some buildings then barricaded and some strengthened. Others were not remedied and whole facades fell down in the next significant Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011, with 39 people losing their lives.

Following the Hurunui/Kaikōura earthquakes, GNS Science advised of an increased risk of further damaging earthquakes occurring in the next 12 months in areas that include Wellington, Lower Hutt, Marlborough and Hurunui.

Based on the GNS advice, the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering (NZSEE) and the Structural Engineering Society New Zealand (SESOC) made a joint submission to the Minister of Building and Construction in early December 2016 voicing a number of concerns, including risks regarding URM buildings.

MBIE Manager Determinations and Assurance John Gardiner, who managed the project for MBIE, says, “After the 2011 quake, people were reflecting and asking if more could have been done with URM buildings after the 2010 earthquake. After the Kaikoura earthquake, the increased risk of further earthquakes in the next 12 months meant that any action needed to be taken quickly.”

The Minister met with SESOC, NZSEE and MBIE representatives to discuss the matter, resulting in the government proposing and then introducing the requirement, and providing a government subsidy to get the work done. Owners of URM buildings that need work in Wellington, Lower Hutt, Marlborough and Hurunui will be notified by their council and have 12 months to act.

John says, “It is a reality that busy thoroughfares with buildings that have street-facing URM parapets and facades do present significant risks to life safety because of how vulnerable they can be in an earthquake.

“What we’re asking those affected owners to do over the next 12 months is to reduce risks from unsecured URM parapets and/or facades falling in crowded locations and threatening people’s safety.”

MBIE, with support from the engineering profession, has produced guidance to assist engineers and owners to undertake the work.

MBIE Chief Engineer Mike Stannard says, “This was a great example of the engineering profession reacting quickly by suggesting an initiative to government in the public interest. Everyone worked together to get legislation passed and the project was implemented in an extraordinarily short timeframe.”

Securing unreinforced masonry building parapets and facades has further information.

This information is published by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Chief Executive. It is a general guide only and, if used, does not relieve any person of the obligation to consider any matter to which the information relates according to the circumstances of the particular case. Expert advice may be required in specific circumstances. Where this information relates to assisting people: