National rules for building quake-resistant homes aren’t enough | Ged Moran

There was almost a gasp of recognition when, on the very same day, Housing New Zealand released new standards, called Building Better May Not Have Passed a Decade Ago, to help reduce the risk…

National rules for building quake-resistant homes aren't enough | Ged Moran

There was almost a gasp of recognition when, on the very same day, Housing New Zealand released new standards, called Building Better May Not Have Passed a Decade Ago, to help reduce the risk of a disaster like the Christchurch earthquakes.

The existing standard, the Building Act 1999, stipulates that damage caused by major earthquakes such as those in Christchurch could result in the loss of houses, but was considered “insufficiently protective”.

The review of the legislation by the office of the chief executive, Peter McKee, had been received positively by some policyholders.

However, shortly afterwards, the new Building Better May Not Have Passed a Decade Ago rules came into effect. The review of the regulations was conducted by Building Standards New Zealand.

About time.

Never heard of Building Standards New Zealand? You probably haven’t. It’s an organisation that hasn’t been there very long. It exists to help standards and certifications held by builders, engineers and experts to be followed. It got its start in the late 90s, when the Comprehensive Standards Regime was introduced, and was upgraded into the more widely accepted Building Codes Regime in 2006.

The new Building Better May Not Have Passed a Decade Ago standards are designed to address the risks of major earthquakes, such as Christchurch. Photo: Save the Children

The new Standards and Certifications Guideline sets out the minimum standards that must be met. But, in terms of strictness, they fall short of the Broader Standards and Certification Guideline, also produced by Building Standards New Zealand.

Both criteria are watered down to the point where they are almost meaningless. These are conditions that have to be met, and if the building is not compliant, then its occupants and businesses will face the possibility of prolonged and substantial financial losses. The new guidelines require compliance but put the burden squarely on the people building them, architects and engineers – the key players in the prevention of disaster.

Looking at the adoption of standards by local government, you’d think that changes had been made. But although there are different codes for local government and private enterprise, a check of the Building Standards New Zealand website reveals that, once again, that hasn’t changed.

Whether through adoption of the standard or not, our state-owned building consents haven’t changed.

Even if the standards had changed at the time of the disaster, they still probably haven’t been adopted by the government at large. They didn’t get much coverage. But if this truly was a significant new benefit that would now make building earthquake-resistant houses or businesses far more affordable, I believe that this should be able to push mainstream construction out the door – resulting in the creation of a situation where people can afford to build with earthquake-preparedness at the heart of all plans.

But in the way that World Bank-inspired loans in developing countries to agricultural businesses have ended up as our neighbours’ public works projects, or the world of low-income housing for which I’ve become accustomed in Tasmania, the benefits to homeowners, businesses and those directly affected by the disasters may have been neutralised by the seemingly insubstantial quality of the standards.

People in Christchurch who have lost homes because of the earthquakes should at least have something to go on. In a way, the national legislation and standards that exist now were never intended to be the norm for all future building of private homes. It was more about a disaster helping us agree that better standards were needed.

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