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The earthquake-prone review will consider scrapping new building standards assessments

The earthquake-prone review will consider scrapping new building standards assessments
The earthquake-prone review will consider scrapping new building standards assessments


Building and Construction Minister Chris Pink has announced a review of the earthquake-prone building system. The review will explore alternatives to new building standards (NBS) benchmarking and seismic risk assessment. Opinions can vary on NBS ratings, as seen with Wellington's Freiberg rerating the pool to 40%.

The review will consider scrapping New Building Standards (NBS) assessments used by engineers to determine whether a property is vulnerable to earthquakes.

Evaluations can be controversial because they are not an exact science. Architects can have variable opinions about a building's classification, which can mean the difference between financial disaster for property owners and continuing life as usual.

Anything less than 34% of the NBS is considered earthquake prone. The overall condition of a building is determined by its weakest parts, so even if just one small component is a problem, the entire building is considered earthquake vulnerable.

For example, in 2022, it was announced that the Hiritonga Building at Hutt Hospital was earthquake prone, with several structural and non-structural elements of concern, and patients and services would have to be moved outside.

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However, the peer review found that only exterior concrete cladding panels were vulnerable to earthquakes. Then another evaluation indicated that the panels could actually be above the threshold for earthquake vulnerability.

It was eventually decided that the building was no longer vulnerable to earthquakes and hospital services and patients could remain.

Building and Construction Minister Chris Pink has issued the terms of reference for a review of the earthquake-prone building system and announced it is underway as of today.

The review will consider questions including how seismic risk is assessed and measured.

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“What are possible alternatives to the New Building Benchmark Percentage (NBS), for example, a risk-based rating system that calculates the consequences of damage to buildings?” the terms of reference stated.

The Hutt Hospital's Heretaunga Block has been able to continue in use. Photography: Mark Mitchell

It will consider whether the current system is consistent in the way it identifies and rates buildings.

“For example, the proportion of NBS assessments, regional authority processes and practices. When inconsistencies or unintended consequences are identified, what are the contributing factors that may have influenced these outcomes?

Pink said the system is not working well and many buildings have not been repaired.

“Many building owners are unable to meet deadlines due to high remediation costs and excessive layers of regulations.

“The current system lacks clarity, and some owners are stuck in impossible situations, where they cannot move forward with a repair but are equally struggling to sell and move on with their lives.”

Deadlines for strengthening earthquake-prone buildings have been extended by four years to provide some breathing room for owners while the review takes place.

Another example of differing opinions when it comes to NBS ratings is Wellington's Freyberg Pool.

When the earthquake situation at the swimming pool was on a knife's edge, one engineer told the City Council he would see if they could “get a little more” to clear the building. It turns out they can.

Although an initial assessment found the building was vulnerable to earthquakes, the pool was rated 40% NBS after engineering consultancy Beca was brought in for a second opinion.

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It is not unusual for the NBS rating to change between the initial assessment and the final assessment.

There have been differing opinions about the safety of Freiberg's pool. Photography: Mark Mitchell

Rob Jury, Beca's senior structural engineer, previously told the Herald that just because there were initially differing opinions about the pool, it didn't mean any of them were completely wrong.

“It just means you have to take the results objectively and put them together.”

It's easy for engineers to be too conservative because they have nothing to gain by being more liberal, Jori said.

“The reality is we have to be more realistic in the way we rate these buildings. We can't be conservative, it sends all the wrong mixed messages. If the community was really worried about getting into low-rated buildings, they wouldn't be able to move.”

The jury said there was still a lot of uncertainty and NBS's ratings were not a given.

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Earthquake-prone buildings can still survive earthquakes, while other buildings cannot. For example, the Census Building, a relatively new building on Wellington's waterfront, partially collapsed in the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake.

The jury said the focus was on giving priority to buildings and moving “bad buildings” out of the way.

NBS ratings have become an issue for owners and tenants even when the building is not earthquake-prone.

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment's initial assessment of an earthquake-prone building system, published in 2021, revealed that the market expected NBS ratings higher than the minimum required life safety standards.

“Following the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, there was a major shift in the public’s awareness of risks, safety expectations and standards set by banks and insurance companies,” the report said.

Engineers expressed concerns that some companies were seeking ratings of 80% and 67%, well above the legal requirement of 34%.

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Meanwhile, insurers have been saying for several years that the NBS is a measure of life safety and not a measure of structural resilience.

“There may be additional structural flexibility in an 80% NBS rollover, but it does not automatically translate into lower risk from the insurer’s perspective,” the Insurance Council said.

“The comprehensive review report or earthquake-prone building codes will be submitted in the first half of 2025.”

Georgina Campbell is a Wellington-based reporter with a special interest in local government, transport and earthquakes. She joined the Herald in 2019 after working as a broadcast journalist.




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