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Building Amendment (Earthquake Prone Buildings) Bill

[In response to Analyses Show Major Flaws in Earthquake Strengthening Regime]

1) The Select Committee has a great opportunity to improve upon the proposed Building Amendment (Earthquake Prone Buildings) Bill. The bill gives too much time to a group of buildings that is too large. In the 20-30 years that the bill allows, there is quite likely to be another quake with expectable and preventable injuries or deaths from falling parapets and masonry.

2) Instead of putting all “earthquake prone” buildings into one group, the Bill should create a separate category for non-structural unreinforced masonry –parapets, gables, and chimneys – because it will make the policy:

a. more effective,

b. more efficient, and

c. more equitable.

3) The Bill should put parapets, gables, and chimneys at the front of the queue for retrofitting because:

a. They are the cheapest to fix; and

b. They are the deadliest if we don’t.

4) The bill should require these non-structural masonry elements to be retrofitted within 2 years because:

a. The Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission recommended it;

b. GNS Science recommends parapets, gables and chimneys be “regarded as dangerous”, even in Auckland; and

c. The bill proposes to allow an extra 10 years for listed heritage buildings, which might well have parapets. We should classify buildings by danger, not by age. Fix the most dangerous parapets on main thoroughfares first.

Why parapets matter

On 22 Feb in Christchurch, there were 3 sites of mass casualty. Both the CTV and PGC sites are etched onto the New Zealand consciousness, with 115 and 18 deaths respectively. Less etched is one block of Colombo Street, where 17 died and 1 was paralysed.

Please allow me to speak for the 17 who died on that block. I am the sole survivor of the red bus that was crushed by an unremarkable and unreinforced masonry façade and parapet. I suffered a compound fracture of my left leg, a broken left hand and severed tendon in my left index finger, a couple of breaks in the bottom right corner of my spine, and somewhere between 6 and 8 breaks in my pelvis. At some point they stop counting fractures. I spent 2 months in hospital, and 6 months off work.

Colombo Street deserves more attention than it has gotten to date. I say this not because I was there. Neither do I say it because I heard and felt the involuntary death throes of a 78 year old woman, a 14 year old boy, and 10 others in between. Nor do I say it because it changed my leg, spine, hand, and soul forever more.

Colombo Street deserves more attention because every town in NZ has a Colombo Street, full of parapets and facades in varying states from loveliness to disrepair. The horrors I witnessed are quite likely to happen again.

In the NZ context, what befell us on Colombo Street was entirely predictable and similarly preventable. Unless Parliament acts to put parapets and unattached masonry in a separate category to be retrofitted first, Colombo Street is destined to repeat itself somewhere, sometime. Failure of unreinforced parapets is expectable in an earthquake. But that does not make it acceptable.

As an injured survivor, I am scared of unreinforced parapets. As a policy scholar, I think the Bill’s implementation plan can be improved.

Policy Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Equity

The goal of any policy is effectiveness, efficiency, and equity. The 3 Es it’s called. In any policy, we must categorise and prioritise. I’m asking the Select Committee to reconsider these categories. Instead of lumping all buildings below 33% of code together, put parapets and unattached masonry bits at the front of the queue, because it is more effective, more efficient, and more equitable. This is not just my idea, it came from the Royal Commission (CERC) and is supported by the GNS report of 3 April 2014.

As pointed out by CERC, it’s essential to fix these building elements first because:

1) they are the cheapest to fix;

2) they are the first to fall; and

3) they are the deadliest when they do fall.

Improving the bill’s effectiveness

Addressing the first and deadliest bits to fall off buildings will greatly enhance the Bill’s effectiveness without increasing overall cost. It makes sense to fix the low-hanging fruit first.

The building that collapsed onto our red bus was expected to fail. Council inspection reports noted that the façade and parapet were leaning out over the footpath, fully detached. This and other masonry failures around the city were so expected that the original Terms of Reference for the CERC didn’t include any masonry buildings. They didn’t need investigating. Everyone knows unreinforced bricks fall. To me as a policy scholar, the most expectable losses are the least acceptable. This is especially true when the methods of prevention are as known and straight-forward as attaching a parapet.

Improving the bill’s efficiency

There are also several ways that putting parapets first will make the policy more efficient.

1) There is no complicated inspection required to ascertain whether a parapet or chimney is present. This will cut costs of engineering inspections, as they will only be required after the first inspection to identify parapets. Council staff could identify all parapets, gables, and brick chimneys in a city within the space of a few days or weeks.

2) Parapets do not hold the building up. Attaching them will require less time of costly business interruption than a full retrofit. They could also be replaced with lighter, and less deadly, materials as they do sometimes in California.

3) Fixing the obviously low-hanging, non-structural, fruit first has the highest safety-gains-to-expenditure ratio. Decreasing human cost for no increase in financial cost is eminently efficient.

Efficiency Part 2: The cost of failing to secure parapets

Finally, the MBIE research on quake prone buildings pays great attention to the cost of retrofitting, borne by building owners. It pays less close attention to the cost of failing to retrofit, borne by the public. It pays even less attention to the value of the buildings in question.

Many of the buildings with unreinforced parapets that I’m talking about are not worth much to the owner or to society. Table 1 is a list of masonry buildings that caused death in Christchurch, with their 2007 capital value, land value, estimated building value, and percentage of capital value tied up in the building. You’ll notice that the building that collapsed onto our bus was valued at $30,000.

addressdeaths2007 capital value2007 land valueapprox. bldg value 2007% of value in bldg
593 Colombo1$690,000$635,000$55,0008%
595 Colombo1$270,000$265,000$5,0002%
601 Colombo1NANANANA
603 Colombo4NANANANA
605–13 Colombo8$1,440,000$1,410,000$30,0002%
617–25 Colombo1$ 2,730,000$975,000$1,755,00064%
738 Colombo1$3,230,000$3,170,000$60,0002%
753–59 Colombo1$3,970,000$3,890,000$80,0002%
382 Colombo1NANANANA
39 Bishop1$243,000$109,000$134,00055%
89, 91,93 Cashel2$2,730,000$2,380,000$350,00013%
32 Cathedral Sq.1$6,600,000$4,040,000$2,560,00039%
90 Coleridge1$307,000$229,000$78,00025%
309 Durham3churchchurchchurchchurch
194 Gloucester1$1,680,000$544,000$1,136,00068%
194 Hereford1$960,000$360,000$600,00063%
246 High1$2,100,000$2,040,000$60,0003%
43 Lichfield1NANANANA
116 Lichfield4$880,000$635,000$245,00028%
200–4 Manchester1NANANANA
265-71 Manchester1$1,610,000$1,210,000$400,00025%
7 Riccarton1NANANANA
391 Worcester2$223,000$90,000$133,00060%

Efficiency Part 3: Cost of failing to secure parapets = public health costs

Given the low value of many of these buildings and the high cost of health care, the cost of failing to secure these parapets might exceed the cost of securing them. They certainly did in the case of Colombo Street.

In the Royal Commission hearings, the building owners testified. The building that collapsed on us was divided into 3 addresses, owned by 2 owners. The owner of the first 3 addresses wasn’t required to tie back the parapets and façade after September, so didn’t. The owner of the 4th address strapped his building after September. His building hurt no one. (Indeed, the tables in the appendices in the CERC report suggest that no masonry building with tie-backs, bolts, or any form of retrofitting killed anyone in Christchurch.)

Strapping his building cost $200,000 he said. Saving my left leg and various other medical costs have cost ACC and the Canterbury District Health Board over $240,000 so far. I won’t deign to put a value on the 12 who died beside me. But the Ministry of Transport estimates the Value of Preventable Fatalities (VPF) at about $6 million.[1]


AddressCapital value (2007)Building value (2007)Cost of preventative actioni(CERC)DeathsEstimated social cost of fatalities (VPF)Injury rehab costs (ACC + DHBs)Cost of action or inaction
615 Colombo$893,000$229,000$200K strapping done00-$200,000
605-613 Colombo$1,440,000$30,000$0K strapping not done7 adults + 1 child$48M$240,000$48,240,000
603 Colombounavailableunavailable4 adults$24M0$24,000,000

Putting parapets first will make the bill more equitable

This leads us to the third E, equity. Unreinforced masonry buildings are more dangerous to passers-by than to occupants. In other words, they present a greater public danger than other types of quake prone buildings that risk collapsing inwards. In Christchurch, masonry buildings did not collapse inward; they exploded into the street. Placarding the buildings will do nothing for those in the street and on the footpath. Allowing the parapets to persist unattached benefits only the owner. It transfers all the risks onto the public, and the future costs onto the public health system. Failing to fix parapets first privatizes benefits and socializes risks and costs. This is not fair.

Finally, fixing the parapets first enhances the Bill’s equity because it will benefit building owners in Auckland and other places considered a lower earthquake risk. It’s cheaper for them and better for public safety to fix the most dangerous and least expensive bits first. This might render unnecessary the full building strengthening costs in areas of lower risk. This is particularly true because we’re talking about public safety, to passers-by. In a lower risk area, requiring owners of parapets to attach them quickly to enhance public safety seems more fair than requiring all building owners to fully retrofit to enhance the safety of occupants. Getting the low hanging fruit first benefits the safety of more people for more time than getting all the fruit in 20 (or 30 for heritage) years time.

The GNS report of 3 April 2014 to the Auckland Council on the earthquake risk and benefits of retrofitting buildings in Auckland lends support to this idea. The benefits of fully retrofitting all 9794 buildings in Auckland below 33% of code are minimal, and far outweighed by the costs.

However, and this is a big however, the benefits of fixing the parapets, chimneys and gables are much greater, because they fall at a much lower shaking intensity. Therefore, GNS “recommend that such items [parapets, gables, and chimneys] be regarded as dangerous, despite the apparently very low levels benefit to be gained from strengthening EPBs.”[2] Parapets are dangerous, even in a city of low seismic risk.


I support the tenor of this bill. But the Select Committee has a great opportunity to improve it. The bill gives too much time to a group of buildings that is too large. In the 20 years that the bill allows, there is quite likely to be another quake with expectable and preventable deaths and injuries from falling parapets and masonry. That is simply not good enough. I know a woman who was paralysed by her chimney in February, because no one had got round to taking it down before or after September. Everyone knew it was precarious, but no one did anything. In delaying action on parapets, gables, and chimneys, Parliament is doing the same thing.

I am not saying that all buildings in NZ should be “earthquake proof” or “100% of code”. I am not arguing for whiz-bang base isolation. I am asking for cheap, effective fixes to the bits of buildings that are the cheapest to fix and deadliest when they fail. I am asking that we first fix the bits of buildings that are the greatest threat to public safety. If we fix the deadliest and cheapest first, we’ll get the greatest safety bang for the retrofitting buck. Putting parapets first will render the Bill’s implementation more efficient, more equitable, and, most importantly to me, more effective.

Every town in New Zealand has a Colombo Street full of facades and parapets. Expectable deaths in the streets from unreinforced parapets is not normal in the developed world. Even in an earthquake.

It wasn’t the earthquake that killed everyone but me on the Colombo Street bus. It was the building, its lack of regulation, lack of structural support, and lack of a fence. It’s not ok. It wasn’t bad luck. She will not be right. We can forgive. But let us not forget.

Ann Brower

Senior lecturer, environmental policy

Department of Environmental Management

Faculty of Environment, Society and Design
Lincoln University

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