Sunday, July 21, 2013
Mike Butler: Govt earthquake paranoia
“Paranoia” and “chaos” are two words used by Napier’s mayor and a leading architect to describe the government’s earthquake-proofing initiatives after the earthquakes that devastated Christchurch. Napier mayor Barbara Arnott terms the government response as “paranoia”. “I think people have got to take a step back and think quite hard”, she said. (1)
The two-storey Williams Building containing six shop tenancies on Hastings St, Napier, that was built in 1910 and withstood the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake must be demolished after scoring six percent in terms of meeting currently acceptable building standards.
“We want people to be safe, but we do know that we can’t totally earthquake-proof any building against any earthquake – we just can’t go condemning them all on that sort of basis”, she said.
Napier architect and building owner Guy Natusch says earthquake site assessment and the costs associated with strengthening are chaotic. Percentage assessments of a building’s structural integrity were meaningless because the percentage is only based on an engineer’s guesstimate. He would prefer a grading system. (2)
The term “earthquake proneness” should be avoided, he said, because it gives the impression that a whole building is likely to collapse where in fact there may be just a part of the building that may have a structural weakness that may be remedied at small cost. Nevertheless, the entire building is classified earthquake prone until the work is completed.
He asks why buildings were being vacated when strengthening could be carried out while occupied. The forced vacancies meant no cashflow to go towards strengthening costs, or for insurance.
My article titled “Earthquake strengthening bad policy” quoted economist Ian Harrison, who said the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment expert’s own analysis shows the costs of the earthquake-strengthening proposals are 50 times the benefits. For proposals to be beneficial, the costs need to be less than the benefits.
One owner told me that his two-storey masonry building that had come through the 1931 earthquake unscathed, and which had undergone earthquake strengthening during the 1980s, was now classified by the Hastings District Council as potentially earthquake-prone in a desktop study, which means the bureaucrat who compiled the list did not view the buildings.
Having parents who lived through the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake made me aware that earthquakes are a reality so I have generally avoided owning certain types of buildings – mainly the inflexible types.
Nevertheless, we have two buildings that pre-date 1931 and are still going strong, in fact better than numerous newer buildings some of which have had to be demolished as a result of failures by building materials, builders, and councils, all within the past 20 years.
For those bemused by the chronic bureaucratic delays and insurance issues in Christchurch, consider the Napier experience.
The earthquake struck on February 3. A Government grant of £10,000 provided for 32 temporary business premises in Clive Square and 22 professional offices in Memorial Square, erected by the Fletcher Construction, and popularly referred to as Tin Town, which opened on March 16, 1931 – just six weeks later.
For the rebuild, four rival architectural practices co-operated. The buildings of Louis Hay reflected the designs of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Natusch & Sons’ buildings were simple, often using arched windows, and Finch & Westerholm produced many Spanish mission style buildings. Most popular was the art deco style of the time. E. A. Williams designed some of Napier’s most striking art deco buildings. (3)
In November 1932, Hastings celebrated its reconstruction, and in January 1933, almost two years after the earthquake, during the New Napier Carnival, Napier was declared officially ‘reborn’ – within two years of the earthquake.
Insurance companies in 1931 were reluctant to pay out. Claimants were referred to a clause in small print that said fire caused by an earthquake does not form part of their fire insurance. These clauses were introduced after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Even after factoring the differences in the scale of damage and available technology, it appears New Zealand was better organized 80 years ago.
1. Wreckers to smash building ’31 jolt couldn’t, HB Today, July 20, 2013
2. Assessment chaotic: Architect, HB Today, July 20, 2013
3. Rebuilding Napier http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/historic-earthquakes/page-8
at 3:39 PM