The New Zealand government has mandated the demolition or structural upgrade of buildings which are highly vulnerable to earthquake damage.

The government’s new policy, recently unveiled by Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson in response to the Royal Commission into the Canterbury Earthquake, requires that owners must strengthen or demolish earthquake-prone buildings over the next 15 years.

The grace period offered by the policy is longer than the 10 years originally recommended by the Royal Commission.

The policy also requires that councils throughout the country perform seismic assessments of all non-residential buildings within the next five years. Multi-storey apartment buildings hosting more than three apartments will also be included in the seismic assessment requirements.

Buildings deemed risky or strategically significant will also receive priority assessment and will be first in line to be strengthened should work be deemed necessary.

Some buildings may qualify for exemptions or extensions for strengthening, such as heritage and landmark structures.

The policy defines earthquake-prone buildings as those which fall below 34 per cent of the new building standard, while also taking other factors into consideration such as the seismic risk of specific locations.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will be entrusted with the establishment of a public register to record the information of all buildings which are subject to assessment.

Councils are at present only required to formulate policies for the identification and handling of buildings which are highly vulnerable to earthquakes, without engaging in actual assessment.

The New Zealand government plans to bring in legislation to formalize the policies later this year and will unveil financial incentives it will offer to owners for the demolition or upgrade of earthquake-prone buildings.

New Zealand’s engineering resources could be strained by the new requirements, with the recent seismic tremors in Wellington highlighting the country’s dearth of structural engineers capable of performing building assessments, even in the national capital.