What are “priority” Earthquake Prone Buildings, and what are the implications?

Wellington City Council (WCC) is close to completing its process of identifying “priority buildings” for the purposes of the Building Act 2004 (Act).  The WCC process is a good example of how and why a building may be determined as a priority building under the Act, and we expect the WCC decision to be an interesting indication of how this ‘landscape’ is likely to develop over the coming months.

WCC  – which operates in a “high risk” area for the purposes of the Act (see below)  – published a Statement of Proposal in October 2018 containing details of those areas it considered to be high traffic routes and/or emergency transport routes.  That Statement of Proposal identified those areas WCC considered to be priority thoroughfares (see below).  Following completion of the public consultation, WCC received a report that recommended shortening the priority building areas within a number of the streets included in the Statement of Proposal, removing some of those streets completely, and adding some others.  WCC’s final decision is due this week, having been delayed from last week.

Close to half of the Councils in New Zealand operate in high risk areas, meaning that they have until 31 December 2019 to identify priority buildings in their area for the purposes of the Act.  For general background on the determination of Earthquake Prone Buildings (EPBs) and applicable time frames see our alert here.

Priority buildings are those that are considered to pose a high risk to life safety, or to be critical to recovery in an emergency.  In order to comply with their statutory obligations, Councils must identify priority buildings in medium or high risk areas in half the time allowed for other EPBs, and owners must remedy those buildings in half the time allowed for other EPBs  – i.e.

Identification by Councils

  • In high risk areas – by 31 December 2019 instead of 30 June 2022
  • In medium risk areas – by 30 June 2022 instead of 30 June 2027

Remediation by owners

  • In high risk areas – 7.5 years from the date of the Council notice specifying the building as an EPB (instead of 15 years for EPBs that are not priority buildings)
  • In medium risk areas – 12.5 years from the date of the Council notice specifying the building as an EPB (instead of 25 years for EPBs that are not priority buildings)

Some buildings automatically fall into the priority building category based on their use – e.g.  hospitals and emergency response service buildings.  Others may be priority buildings due to location and potential for failure in an earthquake.

Councils use input from the community to help identify buildings that are priority buildings due to their location and potential for failure.  Like WCC, various Councils have already issued, and sought public responses on, Statements of Proposal (or similar) identifying “priority thoroughfares” in their areas – being areas having high pedestrian and vehicular movement, i.e.

  • Areas where shops or other services are located
  • Areas where concentrations of people work or move around
  • Areas where concentrations of people access transport
  • Key walking routes that link areas where people are concentrated
  • Key traffic routes regularly used by private vehicles and public transport
  • Areas where high concentrations of vehicles build up

Once a Council has determined where the priority thoroughfares are located, it can then identify buildings on those thoroughfares that have “unreinforced masonry”.  An unreinforced masonry (URM) building is generally one with no additional reinforcing elements, often with parapets, facades, verandas or balconies facing the road/footpath.

URM buildings on a priority thoroughfare, or buildings that could fall in an earthquake and impede an emergency transport route, are deemed to be priority buildings.

At least one Council has already completed the whole process, and has notified the relevant building owners.  As the 31 December deadline gets closer more will certainly follow.

If you would like any assistance with making a submission in relation to identification of priority buildings in your area, or in response to a Council determination that your property is a priority building, please contact one of our experts who would be happy to help.

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