The Christchurch earthquakes laid waste a city of heritage
and character. They not only destroyed homes, land and
infrastructure, but also shattered many historic city
buildings. The fear now is that, even without the earth
shaking, heritage buildings around the rest of the country
will be hit.
The proposed national earthquake rules could cost communities
from Timaru south close to $2 billion, according to a report
officially released by the Southern councils yesterday.
Under the plans, first would come a requirement for local
authorities to receive or carry out seismic capacity
assessments on all non-residential and multi-unit,
multistorey residential buildings, within five years of when
the new policy takes effect.
There would then be a year for the submitting of
strengthening or demolition plans, and property owners would
have 10 years to carry them out. For Central Otago alone,
estimated figures for assessments are $2 million and for
strengthening work $155 million. Quite simply, this will be
too much and too fast.
In many cases, particularly because most of the towns and
cities of the South are growing slowly if at all, it will be
uneconomic to do anything with buildings that fail to meet
the required standards. And that will mean widespread
demolition, either through the demolition ''plans'', or by
being left to deteriorate, demolition eventually by neglect.
And what will happen when demolition of older buildings in
struggling parts of towns is too costly for the owners? Will
they just be abandoned?Dunedin, where the estimated total
costs - at $600 million - will make the stadium look cheap,
was formulating policies before the earthquakes struck.
These proceeded last year and will be enormously difficult
for churches, other voluntary organisations and many
businesses to meet. But, at least, the time periods are
longer and the scope and standards not as strict. If building
strength is less than 34% of the new building standard, for
example, owners will be given between 15 and 30 years to
upgrade to at least that level. And while that might sound
like a relatively long time, it will come soon enough.
The South could well be struck by a significant earthquake,
and lives could be lost. For these reasons, the hazards
cannot be ignored. But an overreaction to Christchurch's
devastation would be ill advised and ill-affordable.
For a start, it should be recognised that earthquakes such as
February 22, 2011, are likely to be extraordinarily
infrequent, that quake being listed by the Institute of
Geological and Nuclear Sciences as a 1:2500-year event.
Despite that, and the phenomenal forces at work, almost all
buildings did not collapse completely. In this tragic event,
of the 185 people killed, 133 were in two buildings, the CTV
and PGG structures, and neither was particularly old.
Most unreinforced masonry buildings, like those along Colombo
St, while devastated, did not fall down. Tumbling facades and
debris killed about 40 people. Five people actually inside
such buildings died.
The South does have literally hundreds of unreinforced
masonry buildings, usually the most vulnerable. With its
longer European settlement and former wealth, it will be
affected most by these one-size-fits-all policies promulgated
from Wellington rather than arising from local communities.
In the unlikely event of a massive quake, it would be
well-nigh impossible to protect most heritage stock, even if
billions of dollars were spent. Christchurch showed no
building can be completely protected from damage. However,
susceptible buildings can be protected from total collapse,
and facades, decorations and parapets secured for reasonable
The realistic focus should be on what can be done to save
lives rather than buildings. Risk is inherent in life and
cannot be eliminated - so it is a matter of what degree of
risk southern communities are prepared to accept. What is
required is a balancing of safety, cost, heritage values and