Buildings at Risk of Collapse from NZ Earthquake

Wellington has returned to work almost as normal within three days of Monday’s earthquake – but questions are being asked as to whether we’ve rushed back too soon.

More buildings were closed on Wednesday as engineers continued their inspections around the city, leaving about 60 offices and apartment blocks shut.

None of those buildings were on the Wellington City Council’s recently published earthquake-prone list, leading one industry leader to suggest standards may need to be reviewed.

Council civil defence controller Gunther Wild said building inspectors were still being rostered around the clock, and building owners also had engineers doing more thorough checks of buildings.

“As these are carried out, what we are seeing is that some building owners are identifying issues that need further investigation.”

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester said there were no public safety concerns. “I can assure people the CBD is safe in all public aspects, and remind them to stay away from cordoned-off areas.”

People were only going back to work if building owners had given the all-clear, he said.

Institution of Professional Engineers NZ (IPENZ) chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene said every earthquake provided a lot of new information about how buildings performed.

“Engineers and others across the industry will need to work with councils and the Government to understand what this new information means for standards,” she said.

The Wellington Company director Ian Cassels, who has interests in 13 CBD buildings, said that, if there was any demand for a rush back to work, it was coming from employers, not property owners.

“Most people who are back at work are there because their employers want them there,” he said.

He believed people should not feel unnerved. Although building inspections after the quake had been rapid, he was confident they were thorough.

“I have a high degree in confidence if an engineer tells me a building will be OK.”

Lester said the presence of a red or yellow sticker meant the building had undergone a detailed assessment, but was not necessarily an indication of how all buildings would deal with a quake.

“We are dealing with the here and the now. If there are things that need changing in the future, we will do a review in the fullness of time.”

He said the at-risk former Deloitte building in Molesworth St was understood to be earthquake-prone, which was the reason it was untenanted, but Statistics House on the waterfront was not, being a relatively new building.

A Wellington City Council list of 663 earthquake-prone buildings, published on November 3, did not feature any of the damaged buildings.

Queensgate mall in Lower Hutt, which remains closed, was not listed as an earthquake-prone building, according to a Hutt City Council register released in September.

However, a shop next to it at 10 Bunny St was.

“Different buildings respond in different ways, depending on the force that’s on them,” Lester said.

Psychologist Katharina Naswall, of Canterbury University, said returning to work could often be helpful to calming people’s nerves.

“Creating a sense of safety and hope is really important,” she said.

“People are better at making decisions about their family when they are in a calm space, so even if [Lester] doesn’t know the full picture, that might actually help.”

It was important that employers understood and managed the different needs of their staff.

“That’s the key. The organisations that supported their employees in Canterbury [after the 2010-11 quakes] did well, and organisations that didn’t have that understanding have taken longer [to recover].”

Employment law specialist Susan Hornsby-Geluk said it was incumbent on employers to get qualified engineers sign off on any quake-affected building before they asked employees to return to work.

“If an engineer has supplied such a report, and the engineer is appropriately qualified, the employer is entitled to rely on it. It’s not really good enough for an employer who is unqualified to walk in, have a look around and decide it looks OK.”

The buck stopped at the employer, not necessarily the building owner, she said.

“It remains the employer’s responsibility to satisfy themselves that all reasonably practicable steps are taken to ensure the work site is safe.”

Employees were within their rights to demand to see a copy of the engineers’ report and, if they still felt unable to work on psychological grounds, they should seek a medical certificate.


* Statistics House (1 Harbour View Rd) – not listed as quake-prone
* NEC House (40 Taranaki St) – not listed
* Ministry of Defence HQ (2-12 Aitken St) – not listed
* Former Deloitte building (61 Molesworth St) – not listed
* BNZ building (60 Waterloo Quay) – not listed
* Tennyson apartment building (25 Tennyson St)  – not listed. But No 26 next door is listed, with an expiry date of 2024 to complete strengthening work
* Katherine Mansfield House (25 Tinakori Rd) – not listed
* Malvina Major retirement village (134 Burma Rd) – not listed