Heritage buildings and seismic risk

Response to Dominion Post editorial of 20 May 2016

Last Friday’s editorial made several useful points about Wellington’s earthquake prone (EQP) heritage buildings and the challenge of paying for them all. Quite rightly you stressed the importance of human safety. Council is also continually pushing Government hard on the importance of strengthening buildings in key locations to a level where they are less likely to be crippled, closing down whole city blocks as happened in Christchurch. We need our city functioning as soon as possible after a major earthquake.

What I don’t agree with is the editorial’s fundamental premise that ‘Wellington’ (private sector and Council) is ‘putting it (strengthening) off’.

Wellington City is a country mile ahead of any other jurisdiction in the country, because we have long taken seismic risk seriously. We have been strengthening infrastructure for over 20 years, building community resilience, collaborating with lifeline operators, and undertaking extensive scientific research. We began initial individual building assessments in 2006/7, completing all 5500 by 2015. In 2012 we had assessed as many buildings as every other Council in New Zealand combined! Most other councils are only starting assessments now.

Your editorial says Wellington has some 130 EQP heritage buildings (currently 135). What it doesn’t say is that most EQP buildings in the City (671) aren’t heritage buildings, and the majority of our 800 heritage buildings and monuments aren’t EQP.

EQP buildings are rated below 34% of New Build Standard (NBS) – the theoretical level to protect life, but they are not earthquake damaged. The editorial refers to an already earthquake damaged Christchurch heritage building that collapsed onto a bus killing 12 people, and implies Cuba Street and Courtenay Place are the same as that Christchurch building. They aren’t. I am sure the editorial didn’t intend to imply that 671 EQP buildings should be strengthened/demolished immediately.

All EQPB owners have received a strengthen /demolish timeframe of 10, 15 or 20 years from their assessment date depending on the level and nature of their building’s use. Many, many owners are proactively strengthening buildings now. Commercial tenants, school boards of trustees, private and public owners demand that.

For non-heritage buildings Council provides 3 years rates relief. (building will be rated at pre-strengthening value for 3 years) I agree completely that we must work with apartment building owners where multiple ownership is often challenging, and we are.

For heritage buildings listed in Council’s District Plan we provide 5 years rates relief, with 8 years for category 2 and 10 years for category 1 buildings on Heritage New Zealand’s list. The editorial says Council ‘deliberates over a meagre fund it gives out each year’. In fact Iona Pannett and I persuaded Council to increase the heritage grants fund from $400,000 annually to $1 million for 2015/16 through 2017/18. This year 20 heritage buildings received grants for EQ work. That support is helpful, sometimes crucial. Council is occasionally criticised for ‘giving money to private owners’. Heritage listing is not for the owner’s benefit, but for the benefit of the wider public. Public monetary support recognises that public good. Council has also already strengthened many of its own buildings. We are impatiently waiting to start the Town Hall.

Between 2012 and 2015 34 heritage buildings were strengthened, coming off the EQP list. Of those 135 current EQP heritage buildings approximately 58 have been strengthened and await certificates of compliance, are currently being strengthened, or strengthening planning is underway. Where I agree with the editorial is that there will be a small residual group of EQP heritage buildings where strengthening is uneconomic, and decisions on relative heritage value will come into play. Ideally we would not lose any heritage buildings, but that is unlikely and we need to be well placed to retain the more important of those residual buildings. We may have to fight for some. Decisions may be required about which buildings to support financially and which are unaffordable. We have just approved delisting the Gordon Wilson flats. Its heritage value was deemed only moderate, and strengthening/repairing the building would have cost at least $17 million more than the resultant building would have been worth. As you suggest we are considering prioritising between buildings within our District Plan, obviously a process that would involve public input.

In short Wellingtonians, building owners and Council, are in fact doing exactly what your editorial says, and we are doing so a good deal faster than your editorial suggests. We need to be a safe, resilient city, and we are working hard to retain as much of our heritage as possible in getting there. (755)

Cr Andy Foster

Chair – Transport and Urban Development

Wellington City


From Steve Cody 23 May 2016

  • We’ve run two seminars with ICA and have 2 more to come.
  • Made submissions to IRD about tax deductibility of engineering assessments.
  • EQ design sponsorship on projects through Canterbury and Auckland Universities and GNS.
  • ICA wants staff support to help them get multiple owners together and to help them with tender negotiations.



 – The Dominion Post

Editorial: Wellington should show more urgency on quake-prone heritage buildings

20 March 2016


The restoration of Wellington’s Public Trust building shows there is some progress on quake-proofing the city’s earthquake-prone heritage buildings.

OPINION: Unlike Christchurch before 2010, Wellington expects a big earthquake – at some unknowable future moment. Everyone understands and fears the city’s shaky geography.

How to plan for that moment, while continuing to run a thriving city right now, is a much more complicated story.

One dilemma is how to pay the large bill for earthquake-strengthening the city’s exposed buildings. The question is sharper again for heritage buildings, which cost far more to fix, and are typically more difficult to pull down if strengthening works are prohibitively expensive.

A new report by the New Zealand Initiative, a business think-tank, and accounting firm Deloitte throws the question into relief and suggests that Wellington is putting it off.

The report invokes a terrible Christchurch example as a warning – in the February 2011 quake,  a heritage-listed building in Colombo St collapsed on to a bus, killing 12 of its passengers. The building had been earmarked for demolition the previous December, but the Christchurch City Council had begun a six-month resource consent process, even though it had powers to allow it more quickly.

That is plainly the nightmare scenario, and it must haunt Wellingtonians who walk down Cuba St, with its many historic facades, or parts of Courtenay Place, Newtown and elsewhere. These are fantastic spaces with real atmosphere, but concern for human lives must come before such aesthetic considerations.

That isn’t a recommendation for giving owners of quake-prone heritage buildings carte blanche to pull them down. But it is a plea for more urgency from local authorities to define exactly which buildings must be saved – and then work to make it happen.

At the moment, the report argues, that is not occurring. Owners of heritage buildings say they find building standards assessments arbitrary, council processes difficult to navigate, and scant options when fixing their buildings proves implausible. In the absence of a solution, they leave the buildings as they are.

This assessment doesn’t need to be swallowed wholesale; it comes from interested parties. Some of the city’s best buildings are being fixed up – recent examples include the Public Trust building, St Mary of the Angels church and the old Deka site in Cuba St.

Owners are not always convincing either. For instance, developer Mark Dunajtschik’s legal case for demolishing the category-one Harcourts building on Lambton Quay did not stack up. (Dunajtschik said the building would “sit there and rot” if he lost the case, but happily he has since restored it after all.)

Yet saving all of Wellington’s 130 or so quake-prone heritage buildings is too hopeful. The bill really is too high for many owners, including some apartment-dwellers with limited means and debt facilities.

Some buildings will reach a council deadline over the next decade or so, still in a state of limbo. Meanwhile, the council deliberates over a meagre fund it gives out each year to a handful of projects.

It can do better. It can decide, with public input, which buildings must be saved, then help to fund the works more substantially on those, if required. Then, in the interests of public safety rather than owners’ pockets, it must let the other buildings go.

 – The Dominion Post