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Home security? Balance safety and risks

 


Richard Sharpe is a Wellington earthquake engineer, Distinguished Fellow of Engineering in New Zealand and a life member of the New Zealand Earthquake Engineering Society.

Opinion: Those who have been involved in the work to make New Zealand’s buildings earthquake resistant certainly have a sense of deja vu in our community’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Earthquakes and severe epidemics occur sporadically and often without warning. After major earthquakes, we enforce entry into buildings via the analogy of traffic lights and enforce restricted red zones. Hard hats are required in addition to masks. There are aftershocks and there are parts of our building population that are more vulnerable than others. Some areas are more at risk than others.

Common to both is the challenge of communicating what we mean by “secure”. Safe compared to what? It usually depends on our individual perception of risk, our lived experience and our daily tolerance of all surrounding risks.

Read more: * Board of Health’s final moments to secure future of Hutt’s maternity and health services * New fix for flooring defects that cause earthquake risk in Wellington buildings * Reopening of Wellington Town Hall postponed until 2025, with additional $37 million needed * Review launched in Hotel building Earthquake assessment * State of shock: How our buildings save lives but little else * Government is looking into whether more buildings are vulnerable to earthquakes * Engineers support new assessment guidelines for earthquake-prone buildings

The recent wave of building closures related to seismic assessments reflects a natural response to safety concerns. It also highlights the need for more understanding of what these limitations really mean, and for a better national conversation about risks and their treatment options.

The earthquake resistance rating of an existing building is described by a simply misleading term, “Percentage New Building Standard” (%NBS). This scale was developed by an expert panel to compare the expected performance of a building with that of a new one built according to existing standards.

34% of NBS were equated with about 10 times greater risk of new construction. At the same time, he considered improving a building to at least two-thirds (67% of NBS, about 5-fold greater risk) as a reasonable compromise. This aspect is not included in the legislation, and the market has set its realistic standards such as 67% or 80%.

Jericho Rock Archer / Stuff

The Maturanga House in Wellington, home to the Department of Education, is the newest downtown building to be closed due to earthquake hazards.

The building designed in accordance with the current building code is expected to avoid collapse with loss of life in an earthquake that is expected to be exceeded at least once in about 500 years at that site. It may become inoperable at much lower thresholds if essential services are lost or damaged to such an extent that they are written off, but it should have a large margin against total breakdown and people should be able to exit safely when the vibration has stopped.

Our Building Code and Regulations describe design methods based on both classical engineering theory/physics and our experiences from previous earthquakes. Above all, the focus is on incorporating durability into the structure, which means sticking to simple concepts that allow seismic forces to pass back into the ground and repeat if some elements fail prematurely to carry a load.

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Examples of some retrofit options for precast concrete floors as they were seismically tested at the University of Canterbury.

For a building community that wants to operate after a normal design level earthquake (eg important parts of hospitals), the building code raises the design level by 80% (and 30% for spaces where a large number of people may congregate). It’s all about relative risk and society’s view (through regulations) of acceptable risk. This may develop over time, especially in the aftermath of major events.

Considerable effort has been made to apply lessons learned from earthquakes in the past decade to improve assessment consistency across many building types, ages, and component materials. The guidelines are now mandated for use when councils decide whether or not a building should be declared earthquake-prone and seek to identify any serious structural weaknesses that would compromise the safety of life. Its estimated elasticity determines the rating (% NBS).

Rosa Woods/Staff

A recent seismic report showed that the main building of Hutt Hospital meets only 15% of the new building standard.

Our legislation currently limits the number of years an earthquake-prone building can be occupied before reinforcement work is completed. This reflects an implicit societal tolerance for rare events and an acknowledgment of the time and resources needed to upgrade or withdraw our building inventory.

However, the Health and Safety at Work Act holds workplace officials personally liable for exposing its occupants to unacceptable risks. Therefore, it is inevitable that an abundance of caution will influence the decision to vacate a building assessed to be earthquake-prone.

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Richard Sharp: “Our recent experience with earthquakes means we are learning how to fix some of the weaknesses and understand the costs and benefits of this work.”

It’s about defining the word “safe” and how we quantify it. Our recent experience with earthquakes means that we are learning how to fix some of the weaknesses and understanding the costs and benefits of this work. These gains should be paired with conversations about managing earthquake “risk”. We clearly have a conflict between interpretations of earthquake-prone building legislation and the Health and Safety at Work Act, which now needs to be reconciled to avoid excessive disruption.

On the bright side, we continue to develop innovative “vaccines” to enhance the resilience of buildings to earthquakes. There is a rapidly growing use in New Zealand of viscous tuned dampers (coffee plungers on activators built into inclined arcs) which are, in many cases, a more economical and effective method than basic insulation to improve seismic resilience (including damage reduction) at levels beyond stochastic seismic design levels to Somewhat.

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