The regime for regulating earthquake prone buildings (“EPBs”) has undergone a significant change.  These changes come about as a direct result of the Canterbury earthquakes, especially the earthquake of 22 February 2011 which more than 180 people lost their lives.  On that day, four buildings in the CBD failed significantly.

These failures were the subject of two reviews: a report by the Department of Building and Housing and the Royal Commission into the Canterbury Earthquakes. The recommendations and findings contained in these reviews provide the genesis for the new regime for EPBs.

This regime consists of legislation, regulations, a revised methodology for assessing EPBs, assessment guidelines for engineers and territorial authorities (“TAs”) and an EPB register .  Together, they comprise of framework for managing EPBs.

The purpose of the framework is to:

  • Establish a more effective and nationally consistent framework;
  • Better target those districts and buildings and parts of buildings that pose the greatest risk;
  • Provide for improved information for territorial authorities, building owners, engineers and the public; and
  • Attempt to strike a balance between protecting people from harm, the cost of strengthening or removing EPBs and impacts on heritage.

Under the framework, central government provides more leadership and direction for managing EPBs.  Territorial Authorities (“TAs”) no longer have to develop individual policies but will be responsible for administering the Act’s requirements in their districts. 

The Building (Earthquake Prone Buildings) Amendment Act 2016 (“the Act”) received is royal assent on 13 May 2016.  It commenced on 1 July 2017.  Under the Act, New Zealand is divided into three categories of low, medium and high seismic risk.  Wellington and its surrounding district is located in the highest category of risk. 

Certain buildings will be deemed to be priority buildings.  These include buildings that have unreinforced masonry that could fall from the building in an earthquake and onto any part of the public road, footpath or thoroughfare.  For priority buildings in the Wellington district, building owners will have 7.5 years in which to carry out seismic works to their EPBs. 

If TAs consider a building is potentially earthquake prone, it must issue an EPB notice.  Notices must be attached to buildings and prominently displayed.  In addition, TAs may prevent people from accessing an EPB by erecting hoarding or fences. 

If a building owner fails to carry out seismic works by the due date, they commit an offence.  The maximum penalty for such an offence is a fine not exceeding $200,000 

All buildings which are deemed to be EPBs will be recorded on the EPB register.  The Register is likely to be publicly available. 

Regulations are currently being developed by MBIE.  They are yet to be finalised. 

Currently, TAs pay for and carry out engineering assessments to determine whether or not a building is earthquake prone.  Under the new regime, TAs will determine whether buildings are potentially earthquake prone based on a building’s location and characteristics. 

In the course of making their determinations, TAs may obtain engineering advice but there is no requirement on them to do so.  That obligation is likely to rest with building owners.  Building owners may be required to carry out an initial seismic assessment and/ or a detailed seismic assessment.  The engineering costs of these assessments are likely to be significant. 

MBIE has also prepared guidelines for engineers regarding how EPBs should be assessed. These guidelines, are significant because they are likely to influence the manner in which engineers carry out their assessments of EPBs.  

Likely consequences of the new regime include:

  • A greater obligation on owners to demonstrate that their buildings are not earthquake prone. 
  • Increased accountability for building owners who fail to carry out the seismic works or demolish buildings in accordance with the requirements of an EPB notice. 
  • Increased accountability for consultants, including engineers who have shown to have provided building owners with negligent advice and/or failed to comply with requirements contained in guidelines. 

The implications for councils, owners, tenants, employers, designers builders, engineers and other consultants should be carefully considered.  While the new regime is likely to result in more resilient buildings, the burden of paying for these regulatory upgrades is expected to rest with building owners. 

At JB Morrison, we have a team of experienced solicitors who are able to provide comprehensive advice and assistance regarding these issues.

For further information or advice related to earthquake matters please contact one of our team:
Richard Caughley by email or (04) 4958903,
Murray Harden by email or (04) 495 8907
Andrew Stewart by email or (04) 495 8921.