Research reveals Kiwis want stronger earthquake-resistant buildings

Houses located on the side of Mt Victoria overlooking Wellington City.
Houses located on the side of Mt Victoria overlooking Wellington City.

New research has revealed New Zealanders have higher expectations of their buildings in earthquake events than providing life safety alone.

“New Zealanders don’t just want to escape a major earthquake with their lives, but they want to be back living and working in those buildings soon after an earthquake,” explains Helen Ferner from the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineers (NZSEE).

NZSEE and the EQC Toka Tu Ake have published the results of the three-year Resilient Buildings Project, which captures the expectations we have of our buildings, and provides a policy framework tool to support engineers and designers to align with these expectations.

“Our approach to design of new building continues to evolve, and needs always to reflect society’s desires and tolerance to the risk of damage, while also considering the costs of mitigation,” Ferner says.

She explains that unprecedented seismic activity in New Zealand has demonstrated the shortcomings in seismic performance in buildings, which resulted in the Christchurch CBD being cordoned off for two years, and thousands of buildings being demolished and rebuilt.

“Those events highlighted that as well as the direct property costs, there was also significant indirect costs from social distress and economic disruption,” Ferner says.

“This framework will support people to create more resilient buildings without blowing the budget, while also meeting people’s expectations.”

EQC chief resilience and research officer Dr Jo Horrocks says one of the key objectives of the EQC is to promote stronger homes on better land.

“From what New Zealanders have experienced in the past decade, more focus on preventing or minimising seismic damage to buildings makes good economic and social sense,” Dr Horrocks says.

Ferner says a major American study quantified major benefit from greater building resilience by reducing casualties and damage, but also minimising the loss of function, social distress, and economic disruption to help the speed of recovery.

The same research also found that the cost of increasing seismic resilience in new buildings was very low — in most cases less than 1% of the construction cost — by using new innovations, but also by avoiding fragile designs and focusing on simpler, regular building designs.

The Resilient Buildings Research discovered that New Zealanders have particularly high expectations of hospitals, marae, aged care facilities and community centres.

“This non-prescriptive framework will help designers to link traditional building performance indicators to wider social, economic and environmental outcomes,” Ferner says.

She argues that the research clearly shows that seismically resilient buildings are no longer a choice or a luxury, but a moral imperative.

“Judging by the enormous trauma suffered in New Zealand, the project team believes the size of the prize, the potential to avoid property loss and associated social distress and economic disruptions, creates a moral imperative to intervene early in the building development phase.”

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