New legislation will mean that Catholic dioceses in New Zealand will have different timeframes for assessment and strengthening of any earthquake-prone buildings. 

The Building (Earthquake-prone Buildings) Amendment Act passed by Parliament in mid-May divides the country into low, medium and high seismic risk areas.

The ruins of Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, Christchurch.
The ruins of Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, Christchurch.

The timeframes for building assessment and strengthening depend on the level of risk, as well as the type of building.

The timeframes for assessment in high, medium and low risk areas will be 5, 10 and 15 years respectively and the times for strengthening, 15, 25, and 35 years respectively.

According to Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment commentary, Christchurch, Gisborne, Napier and Wellington are high risk areas; Hamilton, Invercargill, Tauranga and Whanganui are medium risk areas; Auckland and Dunedin are low risk areas.

What the act calls “priority” buildings, in high and medium risk areas, will have to be assessed and strengthened in half the specified timeframe.

Examples of the priority category are schools, universities, hospitals, and parts of unreinforced masonry buildings that could fall on to a public road or footpath that councils deem require prioritisation.

An extension of up to 10 years is available for category one heritage buildings.

The provisions of the act try to avoid a “one size fits all” approach, which was criticised in the early versions of the bill.

In the initial bill, timeframes of five years for assessment and 15 years for strengthening were proposed for all areas.

Auckland diocese administration board member Paddy Luxford told NZ Catholic that what the revisions in the act say is “that there is negligible risk of a significant earthquake within Auckland diocese”.

Mr Luxford said “buildings within this area will only need to be upgraded/ strengthened when the building has reached the end of its economic life, which is generally considered within the
technical community as 50 years”.

“For older buildings, obviously at some time during this 50 year period, significant remedial work is likely to be undertaken and the issue would need to be addressed at the time.”

Mr Luxford said preliminary work in Auckland diocese had identified some buildings which may be earthquake prone. But further work was deferred until the outcome of Parliament’s amendments to the legislation was known, he said.

“The committee considering this issue will now reconvene sometime in the future to consider the outcome of the bill,” he said.

The only area in Auckland diocese which is deemed a medium earthquake risk is Thames.

Mr Luxford said he thought the new act would have a significant impact on other New Zealand dioceses.

Palmerston North diocese project manager David Mullin said “the act is unlikely to affect the work already underway in each diocese in the short term, but might shape longer-term priorities and decisions”.

Mr Mullin, who has worked on the earthquake-prone buildings issue in Wellington archdiocese, said dioceses have been “actively working on seismic assessment and strengthening of church buildings ever since the Christchurch earthquakes [and earlier in some dioceses, especially the archdiocese]”.

“The new act provides clarity around priorities for attention and timeframes, which is helpful, as is the differentiation of response by regional seismic risk,” he said.

“This leads on to considering how local authorities will respond to the legislation in their responsibilities.”