Hundreds of strengthening deadlines for earthquake-prone buildings will expire in Wellington this decade, putting financial pressure on owners and the heat on engineers.
In total there are 468 buildings needing seismic work over this time period. The expiry dates peak in 2027 when there are 215 deadlines.
The figures extracted this week from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment's (MBIE) earthquake-prone building register show a mountain of work ahead in the capital city.
An earthquake-prone building is anything rated less than 34 per cent of the New Building Standard.
Wellington City Council (WCC) chief resilience officer Mike Mendonça said the spike of expiry dates in 2027 reflected the extensive number of earthquake-prone building notices issued 15 years earlier, along with a recent shortening of deadlines.
New legislation that came into effect in July 2017 meant some buildings in high and medium risk areas have to be remediated in half the time because of their construction, type, use, or location.
Mendonça said it was the building owner's responsibility to take the necessary steps to meet expiry dates, but the council has measures in place to help them do this.
"The council is in regular written contact with all owners, reminding them of their obligations and directing them to available support.
"The council offers support, advice and assistance to owners through a team of six fulltime staff and as outlined on our excellent and informative website."
An Engineering New Zealand spokesperson said the industry fully supported the Government's programme of progressively making buildings safer.
They said it was important to get work done by the given deadlines.
"New Zealand's engineers have previously risen to huge challenges in the wake of the Canterbury and Kaikoura earthquakes, both in terms of carrying out assessments, repairs and retrofits – and refining engineering knowledge in the wake of new information about how buildings perform."
Engineers have been speaking with clients about the need to get this work done in a phased way, rather than leave it to the last minute.
"These deadlines provide sufficient time to get the work done, as long as planning starts now, so there's not a spike in demand further down the track. If people take this approach, we believe that there's enough engineering capacity to meet deadlines", the spokesperson said.
WCC acts as a regulator and it's responsible for determining if a building is earthquake-prone, assigning an NBS rating, and issuing a notice.
If owners do not complete the strengthening work on time, the council can impose safety requirements like a hoarding or fence to prevent people from approaching the building.
It can also seek a conviction and fine not exceeding $200,000, or it can take possession of the building and do the work itself.
WCC's approach is to work with owners and only intervene as a last resort.
In April 2019 WCC abruptly cordoned off 43 Ghuznee St in central Wellington.
MBIE records show the building was issued a red sticker notice in February 2013 with a six-month deadline to complete seismic work, but seven years later that work is yet to be done.
The old Adelaide Hotel, situated on the corner of Adelaide Rd and Drummond St, is in a similar position.
The completion deadline for seismic work was seven years ago in December 2013, but nothing has been done.
WCC has recently undertaken court action over these two buildings.
It's the first time a council has tried to get a court order to take possession of a building, undertake seismic work, and recover the costs from the owner.
The cases were recently heard in Wellington District Court and the council is awaiting the judge's decision.
Both are heritage buildings, which means demolition is a near impossible option because of special protections in place.
Of the buildings which have strengthening deadlines this decade, 37 of them are listed as either a Category 1 or Category 2 Historic Place.
There are currently eight earthquake-prone buildings in Wellington with expired deadlines.
The council is focusing its efforts on the highest risk buildings, being the two before the courts.
Five of the buildings have work underway and one, a car repair shop on Coutts St, is considered relatively low risk.
Buildings with expired deadlines:
• 43 Ghuznee St, Toomath building
• 114 Adelaide Rd, the former Adelaide Hotel
• 117D Coutts St, car repair shop
• 21 Manchester Tce, Karitane Hospital
• 59 Ghuznee St, Albemarle Hotel
• 25 Hutt Rd, Flamingos
• 31 Avon Street, Erskine College
• 280 Cuba St, residential
Building Resilience Heritage portfolio holder city councillor Iona Pannett likened the investment in resilience to the city's water infrastructure crisis.
"We've kind of gone with what we can afford, rather than what needs to be done.
"Risk doesn't go away just because we say we can't afford things."
The council is about halfway through its review of its Long Term Plan, which signals how it will divvy up its budget for the next 10 years.
It's being touted as the budget of infrastructure and Pannett is keen to secure more money to help building owners who are struggling to afford strengthening costs.
At the moment the council has some levers to offer assistance, including rates remissions, building consent fee rebates, and special funds.
The council has just announced its latest tranche of funding.
The Built Heritage Incentive Fund allocated $269,500 to 13 applications, with 85 per cent going towards seismic strengthening.
Cuba St was a key area of focus with money going towards properties like the Art Deco building that is currently home to Satay Malaysia.
The Building Resilience Fund dished out $287,357 for fifteen applications to support owners of earthquake-prone non-heritage buildings.
Every bit helps, but some earthquake strengthening can cost millions of dollars- as apartment owners in Wellington have found out.
For example, Michael Cummins is facing a $400,000 for his share of earthquake strengthening The Grandstand apartment building on Kent Terrace.
The Government has also offered support in low interest deferred payment loans of up to $250,000 for unit owner-occupiers facing financial hardship.
But the loan scheme has been criticised for its exclusivity and affected owners want earthquake-prone building legislation to be reviewed and have multi-owned residential buildings removed from it.
On the 2020 Election campaign trail Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson said he "absolutely" supported a review of the legislation.
However, he said that in itself wasn't enough because in the time it would take to do a review, owners would still be facing their looming deadlines.
Robertson said they would need to work out a way to ensure those deadlines could be pushed back in the meantime.
Pannett said the council was working as hard as it could with owners to help them fulfill their legal obligations.
"Obviously it's now becoming urgent, and while 7 years might sound like a lot, it's nothing if you're in a body corp situation or with multiple owners."
She said Wellington's earthquake-prone building list was slowly reducing as people successfully completed strengthening.
There used to be more than 600 buildings but now that number is more like 570.
Pannett said she could not support "kicking people out of their homes", in the case of apartment owners, if they couldn't get their building strengthened by the deadlines.
"As long as people are trying."