From a distance, Wellington seems to have returned to business as usual after the November 14 earthquake. But closer inspection reveals a haphazard approach to building safety. Is our capital city repeating mistakes made in Christchurch?

At 4.35am on September 4, 2010, a magnitude-7.1 quake struck Canterbury.

Cantabrians jumped out of bed and made their way to doorframes, hunched under tables, and ran into the streets.

First light revealed parts of the region had suffered damage but on the whole, Canterbury escaped relatively unscathed.

People picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and returned to business as usual. They thought they'd dodged a bullet.

Less than six months later, on February 22, 2011, the city was rocked to its core by the M6.3 quake that struck at 12.51pm. Bricks from unreinforced masonry rained from the sky, and two major buildings crumpled, taking 185 lives.

The CTV and PGC buildings had been damaged in the September 2010 quake but people had been allowed to re-enter. The masonry on Colombo St was a known hazard but the protective barriers had been moved inwards.

Earthquake Engineering Society president Peter Smith attended 34 hearings at the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission - an experience he doesn't want to repeat.

"I never thought that Wellington would be in the same situation as Christchurch," he says.

But here we are.

A little over a month ago, the magnitude-7.8 North Canterbury quake rocked Wellington.

Windows and glass smashed from storefronts, apartment buildings and office blocks. Port land gave way to liquefaction, and two flagship buildings on the reclaimed land - BNZ and Statistics House - were significantly damaged.

Shattered glass covers the streets in central Wellington. PHOTO: CAMERON BURNELL\/FAIRFAX NZ

Shattered glass covers the streets in central Wellington. PHOTO: CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ

Coastal Wellingtonians raced up Mt Victoria to escape the threat of a tsunami, while those in the CBD gathered on the streets.

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester told people to avoid the CBD. A rapid response team was checking at-risk buildings but the infrastructure had held up well, Lester said.

At least 60 buildings in the CBD had been damaged, 10 seriously.

By Monday evening, the mayor declared the CBD would be open for business the next day.

But what's followed has highlighted the misinformation and confusion surrounding Wellington's approach to quake-prone buildings.

It soon became clear many more buildings were at risk than initially thought.

Featherston St remained cordoned off, damaged port buildings were out of bounds, then cordons went up around Molesworth St, Tennyson St, Courtenay Place and The Terrace.

One of the city's first high-rises, 61 Molesworth St, had a family living inside but was so dangerous its demolition was confirmed by Wednesday afternoon. Six engineering reports all classified the building as unsafe for re-entry. The family was never able to collect its possessions.

People evacuated buildings and gathered in the streets in the CBD. PHOTO: ROBERT KITCHIN\/FAIRFAX NZ

People evacuated buildings and gathered in the streets in the CBD. PHOTO: ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Most of these evacuations were described as "precautionary", after second opinions had been sought by staff who didn't feel safe in the buildings they were working in. Glass panes had come loose, cracks ran along walls and floors seemed to slant on new angles.

IRD workers say they've been concerned since the 2013 Seddon quake caused cracks in the walls of their headquarters in the Asteron Centre.

Building developer Mark Dunajtschik says the cracks are superficial and there's nothing to worry about. A second engineering report raised concerns about the safety of the stairwells so IRD moved its workers out. This was one of the first glimpses into the subjectiveness of engineering reports.

Just days later, the Reading Courtenay carpark and parts of Queensgate Mall in Lower Hutt were added to the list of buildings to be demolished. None were on either city's earthquake-prone buildings list.

More than a month after the quake, parts of Wellington are still being cordoned off as new risks come to light. On December 15, the ANZ bank on Tory St and Forresters Lane were evacuated. Concrete panelling was at-risk of falling off the bank.

A NZ Post store on Marion St has since been permanently closed and a further 80 buildings have been identified as potentially at-risk. These buildings are now undergoing invasive testing to see whether they'll be safe in the next quake.

While the council did an initial sweep of the CBD, the burden rests on property owners to ensure their buildings are safe.

Tenants, employees and the council have to trust they are doing this.

Lester says the "vast majority" of building owners acted quickly and responsibly in the wake of the quake - getting engineering assessments to ensure the safety of tenants and passersby. But there is a "small amount" who "didn't have the wherewithal".

He says the time has not yet come to name and shame these landlords.

After the quake, the council was granted new powers to compel landlords to release their engineering reports but these powers expire in January.

Wellington’s civic administration building has been closed since the quake. PHOTO: ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

While Wellington thought it had come away relatively unscathed, the potential dangers became evident following haphazard evacuations.

Questions began being asked of the council's handling of the situation - should the CBD have been closed for another day? Should there have been a formal evacuation and state of emergency triggered?

Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee. PHOTO: ANDY JACKSON\/FAIRFAX NZ

Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee. PHOTO: ANDY JACKSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee was among those to question the quick return to business, saying he was "a little surprised" at the "very quick" decision to give the all-clear.

"I am somewhat unhappy about that, and we are going to have to talk to them."

But less than 24 hours later, he went on to say "life goes on… We shouldn't get ourselves into a pessimistic picture".

Earthquake Engineering Society's Smith says council should have taken another day to get all the relevant information, and make sure the CBD was indeed safe. But there was pressure to get back to business.

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester. PHOTO: MAARTEN HOLL\/FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester. PHOTO: MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Lester says there wasn't any pressure to re-enter and he has defended the decision.

"On balance" the situation was "not sufficiently catastrophic" to trigger a state of emergency.

In these types of situations there's a form the mayor, civil defence and emergency services go through to weigh up whether the severity of the situation warrants handing the reins over to central government.

And for every decision, there's a consequence, Lester says.

"If you're [evacuating] 17,000 people you want to make sure you're making it in their best interests as well, and not just making it as a response to a fear, or paranoia, or hysteria."

Wellington Region Civil Defence controller Bruce Pepperell. PHOTO: ROSS GIBLIN\/FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington Region Civil Defence controller Bruce Pepperell. PHOTO: ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

But ultimately, the call to evacuate is made by Wellington Region Emergency Management Office controller Bruce Pepperell.

The ex-navy man has taken the latest knock to the capital in his stride. He's pragmatic about the risks and the options available in this type of event.

Pepperell says he's not taking decisions regarding people's safety lightly. But that doesn't mean triggering a state of emergency and cordoning off Wellington is a good, or practical, solution.

This earthquake has hit the capital in an unusual way - there was no local epicentre, meaning the damaged buildings are scattered across the region.

"If you wanted to go to the nth degree you would have to cordon off the southern tip of the North Island, north of Porirua. That's not going to happen."

Even officially evacuating the CBD would have been impractical, Pepperell says, adding that if the entire army and territorial forces joined hands, they would barely cover the city centre's 9.2 km perimeter.

"Sometimes emergency management is about making decisions when you would like more information but it isn't available."

There's always the 'what if?', he says.


There are hundreds of quake-prone buildings in Wellington. Most of them are still used daily but dozens have been condemned, either because their timeframe has expired or because they are severely damaged. Some of these buildings could still be fixed, others will become dust.

However, thoughts of 'what if' have quickly faded.

Those in the industry have labelled this as an opportunity to learn where the risks lie and what needs to be done to mitigate them. They say now is the time to act. But most Wellingtonians have already moved on - crowding down Cuba St, walking directly under the types of structures that claimed lives in Christchurch.

Earthquake Engineering Society's Peter Smith says this quake should have spurred building owners, employers and everyday Wellingtonians into action. People should be calling for further information about buildings, educating themselves about the riskiest areas, and calling on council and building owners to strengthen, and strengthen fast.

"People are at risk."

Smith says it's difficult to compel building owners to do work faster without causing public alarm - statements of imminent risk are cautious statements.

But instead of causing alarm, this earthquake has created a false sense of security.

Quake-prone buildings held up well, unreinforced masonry held on, and Wellington is now in danger of falling into the same trap as Christchurch following the 2010 quake, he says.

Wellington City Council building resilience manager Steve Cody agrees there's a danger of complacency of earthquake issues coming off the boil.

"It's a little bit out of sight, out of mind."

Changes to earthquake-prone building legislation are underway but these won't come into effect until next year and even then, will take a while to have a meaningful impact on the current building stock.

Smith estimates it'll take at least 10 years to get 5 per cent of the country's buildings up to the latest code.

Lester, and others at the helm, are quick to point out the work that is happening - new earthquake-prone building mandatory stickers, a national register of earthquake-prone buildings, shorter timeframes to complete strengthening work, and powers to force building owners to share their engineering reports with council.

But why have these changes taken so long?

And will it be enough to save lives when Wellington is struck with its own quake?

The proposed legislation moves the timeframe to fix quake-prone buildings from 10-20 years, to 7.5-15 years.

Some buildings have a shorter timeframe if they pose a high risk to life safety or provide a necessary service in an emergency situation, like a hospital or fire station.

This means even the highest risk buildings could take 10 years to be fixed - 2.5 years to be identified as quake-prone, and a further 7.5 years to strengthen or demolish.

Wellington property developer Richard Burrell says high-risk buildings in areas like Cuba St, Tory St, Manners St and Courtenay Place should have a deadline of one year.

A building is considered earthquake prone if it is assessed to be below 34 per cent of the New Building Standard (NBS).

WCC makes its list of quake-prone buildings available on its website (some councils don't) but that's as far as it goes. Proposed legislation includes a national register of all quake-prone (below 34 per cent) buildings.

There have been calls for a mandatory register of all buildings, along with their NBS score. Lester initially says this is an issue for central government. He later changes his mind: "My preference is to have all the information available publicly."

But the stickering system isn't perfect and can cause confusion among tenants - what do the stickers mean? Is it safe for me to enter?

The stickering system for Wellington’s quake-prone buildings can be confusing. Here’s what you need to know. VIDEO: JOHN COWIE/FAIRFAX NZ

Lester says he wouldn't live in a building below 67 per cent of code - the level recommended by the Earthquake Engineering Society - while many Wellingtonians are living and working in quake-prone buildings without knowing their level of NBS compliance.

When asked whether it's a gamble to walk down Cuba St past buildings with unreinforced masonry, Lester says it's been a gamble since they were built.

He says he wants to see those buildings strengthened; he wants his wife, kids, friends and all Wellingtonians to be as safe as possible when walking through the vibrant central hub.

"I don't want anyone injured; I don't want anyone to die. And no-one wants that. But we have to recognise these things don't happen overnight."

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester talks about the risks Wellington faces. VIDEO: ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

But fear over the safety of Wellington buildings isn't something that's sprung up overnight.

In 1855, a M-8.2 quake centred in Wairarapa hit Wellington. Many buildings had been constructed in wood, following the 1848 Marlborough quake. However, some commercial buildings were brick due to the fire risk of wood.

The 1855 earthquake damaged many of the city's brick buildings, including the jail and bank, and one man died after a chimney fell on him.

An Evening Post article from 1942 raises issues about the country’s attitude towards earthquake preparedness. SOURCE: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF NEW ZEALAND

An Evening Post article from 1942 raises issues about the country’s attitude towards earthquake preparedness. SOURCE: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF NEW ZEALAND

While memories of the 1848 and 1855 earthquakes were fresh, most of the new buildings in Wellington were built from wood. But less than 30 years later the awareness of building safety began to fade and masonry construction crept back in.

In the end, it all comes back to money.

Former Christchurch mayor Bob Parker says the cost of human life has to trump any economic decisions.

But Smith says when you're dealing with "a low-probability, high-consequence event", risks are very difficult to quantify.

It's "questionable" to put a value on human life but extensive strengthening work means spending a lot of money for an event that may never come.

The council's Cody says, "there's always room for us to do more".

But there may not be the capacity within the building sector to complete strengthening work by deadline if the timeframes are drastically reduced. And many building owners will struggle to meet the financial demands.

"Do you say, let the market determine the outcome and see those people and their tenants struggle and lose their assets?"

While we ponder, people will continue living and working in quake-prone buildings without understanding the level of risk.

Cody says most Wellingtonians know something about quake-prone buildings "but a lot of people don't know enough to make an informed decision".

Where's safe in the next big earthquake?

To further complicate matters, even those who've read up on quake-prone buildings don't necessarily have the full picture.

The earthquake has reopened the debate around seismic engineering, how subjective the process is, and whether engineers are being properly overseen.

Connal Townsend, chief executive of the New Zealand Property Council, claims members have reported the same building assessed by different engineers as both earthquake prone and better than 100 per cent of the new building standards.

"You can get three different engineers and they give quite radically different numbers. We've heard of astonishing differences between engineers. The question is, what's the answer the landlord wants," Townsend said.

"It's still a very murky science."

Susan Freeman-Greene, chief executive of the Institute of Professional Engineers (IPENZ) says the profession has high standards, as well as a robust procedures for dealing with complaints.



But asked about the variations between different assessments on the same building, and whether building owners could "shop around" for reports Freeman-Greene simply says where members recognise a public safety issue which is not being addressed, they are obligated to raise it.

IPENZ has attempted to close a loophole which allowed members to escape censure by resigning. It's unclear if this has been tested.

In 2014, Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith promised to create an independent body to handle complaints about engineers.

This has now been expanded to propose a new complaints body for the wider building industry, with Smith indicating draft legislation could be revealed in January.

Wellington Region Civil Defence controller Bruce Pepperell says if a major quake strikes on the Wellington faultline “all bets are off”. VIDEO: ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

In the meantime, Kiwis are advised to make themselves aware of the risks and avoid becoming complacent.

This quake wasn't a Wellington quake. A Wellington quake is expected to create widespread devastation, taking out power, water, buildings and lives.

Bruce Pepperell says this has always been a risk - "If you had a 7.5 on the Wellington faultline, all bets are off."

"If we had a big earthquake here, I can guarantee that there are some people who are gonna die."

He tempers this with: "There are very few certainties in this world... What we do is manage the situation as intensively as possible."

More than a month after the quake and buildings are still closing. It's unclear why risks have taken this long to identify and who's responsible for allowing people back into compromised buildings.

When asked about ensuring the safety of Wellingtonians, Lester says the council is doing what it can but building owners have to step up and fulfil their moral obligation to tenants.

It will also fall on engineers, professional bodies and central government to untangle the mess of confusion and uncertainty about building safety in time for Wellington's next quake.

This feature is part of the Faultlines series, a joint investigation by Stuff and The Dominion Post.

Work on Faultlines started within days of the November 14 quake, when holes in the city's earthquake response became apparent.

The 'Faultlines' team will continue work through 2017. You can contact the team via email or