In 2017, the Government addressed future building impacts arising from the Christchurch earthquake.

Owners of buildings, particularly those having commercial buildings in the provinces, had been conscious (perhaps even anxious) that the Government might impose unrealistic strengthening requirements on them.

For many, government enforcement might inevitably lead to demolition of historical buildings, where the commercial costs exceeded any commercial benefit.

The new legislation is covered in the Building (Earthquake Prone Buildings) Amendment Act 2017.

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The legislation places the timetable and supervisory burden upon local councils.
Councils are required to identify "earthquake prone buildings" by certain dates.

Earthquake prone buildings are those which "… if having regards to the condition of the building or …. the ground on which the building is built, and because of the construction of the building…., the building ….. will have its ultimate capacity exceeded in a moderate earthquake, and…. would… likely …. cause death or injury to persons in or near the building or on any other property…..".

Notably the legislation does not regulate a percentage of building codes that the Councils must enforce, but it has generally been accepted by Councils, in adopting policies around the legislation, that the percentage threshold for an earthquake prone building that which is less than 34%of current building code.

Councils are specifically required to address three different types of building as being likely to fall within the earthquake prone category:
Un-reinforced masonry buildings
pre-1976 buildings of three stories or more (or greater than 12 m in height) or
pre-1935 buildings.

Councils need not restrict their assessment to just these types buildings but one might expect their attention to focus on these alone. Notably wooden buildings are not within the targeted types, but that does not necessarily exclude them. Most residential buildings are not required to be assessed by the Council, unless the building is 2 storeys or more, and contain 3 more households or some kind of specialised accommodation, such as a hostel.

Generally, Councils in medium risk areas, such as Whanganui, must have identified these buildings no later than 1 July 2027, unless the building was a "priority building" in which case they had to be identified before 1 July 2022.

"Priority buildings" are those which would be important should an earthquake occur, namely hospitals, buildings adjacent to emergency access, and educational facilities where a large number of people may be occupying.

Having identified the potentially earthquake prone buildings, Councils are required to notify the owners of that status. Councils are required to give those owners 12 months (with some small tolerance) to complete an initial seismic assessment of the buildings strength.

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The cost of the assessment is on the building owner.

If that initial seismic assessment determines the building as being earthquake prone (being the accepted rating of less than 34% of national building standards - "NBS") then the landowner would then be served with an Earthquake Prone Building Notice.

That notice would be attached to the building, advising the rating and, amongst other things, the timeline for strengthening work to be done.

Landowners are required to strengthen the building within that time line.

"Priority buildings" have 12.5 years , and all other earthquake prone buildings have 25 years from the date of the Council's notice to complete the strengthening works .

It should be noted that these compliance dates may be bought forward where the landowner proposes to carry out building works which would otherwise require a building consent and where the cost of that work has an estimated value of 25% or more of the building's value.

Whilst the deadline dates may be thought to be far into the future, it should be noted that failure to comply with the new rules can lead to fines of up to $200,000. If a landowner has not completed the necessary works, the Council can apply to the Court for an order s including allowing it to carry out the works at the landowner's cost, or demolishing the building.

Whilst property owners may take some comfort on the lead time, they should not be dulled into thinking earthquake strengthening issues have no immediate impact on them.

Some banks (perhaps independently of compliance with these rules) are already imposing lending restrictions that they will not lend on commercial buildings having a code of less than 67% of NBS.

Likewise tenants are expressing reluctance to take on leases of buildings where there is a low building code. Lawyers are also being asked by employers as to the consequences under the Health and Safety legislation of exposing their staff to low NBS.

Be under no illusion that the consequences of Christchurch will have a dramatic, if somewhat creeping, impact on the provincial city building landscape. Internet shopping and modern mall complexes will only add to this change.