Central government and local councils have only a rough idea of the number of buildings that may have the same fire safety specifications as Wellington’s Loafers Lodge.
Councils that do have an idea of the number of “sleeping accommodation” or boarding house-style buildings similar to Loafers Lodge in their rohe (region) told the Herald that only about a third of such buildings have fire sprinklers.
Loafers Lodge was engulfed in a deadly blaze a week ago. The exact number of fatalities is not yet known.
The building was fully compliant with the current building code, and had recently passed its building warrant of fitness. Loafers Lodge did not have fire sprinklers installed, and under the current building code it was not required to.
Wellington mayor Tory Whanau has said council staff are investigating how many other buildings in the city could be in a similar position.
A Wellington City Council spokesperson said the council was still working on the scope of the review.
In the wake of the tragedy, the Herald contacted other councils in large cities, asking them what they knew about the state of their own building stock.
While New Zealand’s building regulations are set centrally by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), the job of checking compliance and certifying buildings is up to councils, meaning there is no centrally-held database of how many buildings have certain fire safety features.
Craig Hobbs, director of Auckland Council regulatory services, told the Herald that there were about 17,000 buildings in Auckland that have BWOF [Building Warrant of Fitness] requirements.
For buildings with a compliance schedule - generally larger and significant buildings with certain uses, like accommodation - a BWOF is required to be submitted annually to the council to prove the building complies with its various code requirements, including fire safety features like exits, fire doors and alarms.
“Approximately 4200 of these buildings are residential apartments, schools, early childcare centres, aged care or retirement homes, churches, hotels, motels, boarding houses, lodges, hostels, camps, and backpackers,” Hobbs said.
He said those buildings are audited by council inspectors on a frequency ranging from three-yearly to five-yearly, based on risk.
In the past year, 1014 or 24 per cent of audits were carried out on those buildings by BWOF inspectors.
Less than a third of boarding houses have sprinklers
Hobbs said that in Auckland there were 155 buildings requiring BWOFs that had been identified as boarding houses, a category that included lodges, hostels and backpackers.
All of these had automatic fire alarm systems, but only 46 had fire sprinkler systems.
Hobbs said that not all boarding houses required sprinkler systems under the current code.
“Not all boarding houses require sprinkler systems under both historic[al] building rules and today’s building code,” Hobbs said.
“As an example, it is possible to build a boarding house up to four storeys without requiring a fire sprinkler system. Forty-four boarding houses have been audited by building inspectors in the last year,” he said.
A long to-do list
The Auckland Council also reported a long list of buildings that had fallen below these standards.
As of 17 May, five buildings had expired BWOFs. All of them were undergoing further investigation or enforcement by the council’s compliance team.
Hobbs said that team was also “investigating or prosecuting about 120 building owners where illegal boarding house activities have been reported”.
There were currently 1200 Notices to Fix (NTFs) and 450 infringement fines issued since July 2021 on buildings with expired BWOFs - that figure includes all buildings, and not just boarding houses.
The Christchurch City Council’s head of building consenting, Robert Wright, said that it was “difficult to give an exact number of buildings in Christchurch with the same use as Loafers Lodge in Wellington”.
“Buildings of this type are grouped with all other types of sleeping accommodation, such as hotels, motels, serviced apartments, hostels, boarding houses and backpackers,” Wright said.
What the council does know is how many buildings have been “legally established as ‘sleeping accommodation’”, he said.
In Christchurch City’s case, out of 5517 buildings with compliance schedules requiring a BWOF, 311 buildings include the use ‘sleeping accommodation’.
“Of these, 107 have a sprinkler system,” Wright said.
There was an important caveat to that data, which was that it included both multi-level buildings, where the need for sprinkler systems is probably greater, and single-level buildings.
Wright said that the council reminded building owners when their building warrants of fitness were due and undertook onsite audits of buildings too, with a target of completing about 1000 a year.
The Dunedin City Council was unable to respond by this story’s deadline.
Building and Construction Minister Megan Woods has said she was “absolutely” open to looking at Building Code changes in light of the fire.