Thursday, 3 March 2011

Don’t get “tough” on Christchurch building standards. Get smart.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say we need “tighter” building standards, or that New Zealand’s “tight” building standards saved lives in Christchurch, I’d be, well, I’d be richer than I am now.

Many people seem to labour under the illusion that building standards are a gift of government. That all government needs to do is mandate tough standards for builders and designers to follow, and the world would be a happier place. 

This is really a child’s view of reality.  It’s as if there’s a bag of special tricks that everyone knows about, and nasty builders and designers hope to hoodwink the people who pay them by pretending not to know it’s there.

Off the top of my head, there’s at least three things wrong with this.

First of all, it’s not simply a matter of “tougher” or “softer” regulations. That’s a complete false dichotomy. Good ways to build are neither tough nor soft, they’re intelligent. They’re methods devised by smart people in every generation to do what needs to be done with the material at hand—and many of the smartest building methods use the least material: and the material that is used is used intelligently.

Second, it ignores most of human history. This might surprise some people, especially the paid lap-bloggers at the Sub-Standard, but for most of human history there were really no building codes at all. And the best of what was built over most of that history can be seen on my fridge, because every time friends go overseas they send me postcards to taunt me with where they’ve been. Bastards.

Now sure, the Code of Hammurabi certainly goes back to ancient times—and for those who don’t know this was a rule in ancient Babylon that said if your building falls on someone else’s head, then Hammurabi will cut off yours.  But while tough, this was hardly a prescriptive Building Code. It still relied on some smart person to work out how to build so everyone’s head (especially the smart person’s) was safe.

Which brings us to our third and most important point. The techniques for building so things don’t fall down don’t pre-exist; they have to be created.

Making buildings so they don’t fall down is a science. Some smart person had to look at the problems making other buildings fail, and devise a real-life solution to make sure his building doesn’t. (This is how we got everything from pointed arches to flying buttresses to hypar shells to K-braced frames to slotted concrete seismic shear walls—indeed, this is how we got everything that goes into making every modern building. They represent embodied intelligence. The techniques weren’t simply sitting around waiting for governments to make them compulsory.)

The residue of what these smart people do does might eventually end up in a building code somewhere—if the building code itself hasn’t been written to make these new techniques impossible. (You see one of the problems with a “tough” building code?)  But it sure as hell didn’t start there.

Now, one of the things seismic engineers do especially well is to devise new solutions to the problems that have made other buildings fail—because as most of you will by now have discovered by reading around, the way the earth acts on a building in an earthquake is not always easy to predict.

The Christchurch earthquake is a perfect case in point. 

Up to now, buildings have largely been designed to take gravity loads (which act downwards) and wind and earthquake loads  (which after decades of analysis have always been assumed to act sideways, as you can  see in these Shake Tables use to test building models.)

But this last big earthquake in Christchurch was different. The ground didn’t act that way—and not just because some it liquefied under some of the buildings.

Instead in Christchurch the ground exerted a big sideways force (about as big as the force of gravity, only sideways), and also a big upward force as well. Big enough to be twice as big as the downward gravity force.  Essentially the earthquake threw buildings up in the air (severing some piled foundations in the process) and then let the ground catch them.

And Christchurch’s buildings weren’t designed for that. Nor are any buildings anywhere anywhere else.

This is why a lot of seismic engineers like to keep a fully loaded suitcase by the bed.  Every time there’s an earthquake anywhere in the world, the world’s top seismic engineers head to the airports in droves to see what happened this time, and how the latest theories about seismic engineering have held up.  This is one reason that makes them top engineers.

In Christchurch what these engineers will  surely discover, despite the braying about modernbulding codes saving people’s lives, that both modern buildings and heritage buildings have failed alike. Provincial Chambers, CTV, Pyne Gould, Park Royal, Gallery Apartments, the new council building, Cashel St Bakery building, Old Arts Building, virtually every church in the Cathedral City … all now have either failed or have problems.  Some modern buildings collapsed in surprising ways. Many failed while still saving the folk within. And many heritage buildings lost their outer brick skins, while still keeping roofs, partitions and structural frames intact.

Many of these building were even built (or renovated)  to modern building codes.

They still failed.

Which tells us once again if we’re open about it that it’s not a case of simply being “tough” or “soft” about how people build. If it was that easy to know what to do we wouldn’t have seen over the last few months the government’s and council’s pendulum swinging from insisting before the last earthquake that no heritage building will be demolished (“You will not touch your heritage buildings,” an emotional councillor Sue Wells harangued building owners before the last earthquake) to insisting this week that every heritage building must go.(''What we've got in the CBD is 500-plus [heritage] buildings that will need to be demolished,'' Gerry Brownlee told those building’s owners through the media.)

This is the way governments act when they get “tough.” Without a clue.

The point is not to act tough, but smart.

The real point, perhaps, is to let those who know best do their best.  And people like Gerry Brownlee and Sue Wells are very much not those people.

It’s a matter of devising a method by which those who actually do know the field of risk and structures and construction between them, by voluntary agreement, produce smart intelligent ways to allow people to build in a smart and intelligent way---in a way that doesn’t require ratepayers and taxpayers to assume financial responsibility.

One thing Gerry Brownlee could do if he was smart enugh is to get started on enacting such a proposal that is already sitting around all ready to go in the Department of Building and Housing. The proposal would essentially allow standards to bet set voluntarily by those who benefit most from high standards, and requires risk to sit with insurers, who do that best.

_Quote The discussion document tucked away in the DBH – the Building Act Review – … hints … in short, [that] compliance and regulation would be taken off local government and handed to the building industry. Insurers would indemnify the builder and if a leaky home popped up, the insurer would deal with the homeowner and fix the problem.

Essentially it’s not Sue Wells and her employees that builders and designers would have to convince, with all the risk that implies for ratepayers, but their insurers. This should save everyone in time, lives .. and money.

_QuoteCouncils would not be collecting building permit and inspection fees – the average $15,000 per new house spent in this way would more than cover the cost of indemnity.
    If the developer or builder went bust, the insurer would find another they could trust and fix the problem. The insurer would decide which builders – and developers – to trust. All the council would do would be to identify where the house would go, how high and wide it would be, and what services would hook up to it.
    Looking at the case of [the failed subdivision of] Bexley [for example, where the council allowed the subdivision and home building to proceed on the assumption that designed engineering solutions could compensate for the instability and lack of support of the ground], the indemnifier might want something better than the assurance of an ‘engineering solution’ for the ground problems.
    If the insurer refused to cover the subdivision, the houses wouldn’t be built there.
    This approach would oblige the industry to get out of nappies. It would take licensing builders away from the DBH and cut many of the DBH tentacles gripping and, in some cases, choking the industry. The DBH [or, indeed, whomever the various insurers chose to specify as their variously chosen authorities] would deliver a building code everyone could use and which would ensure safe and functional buildings. That would be the end of its responsibility on behalf of the taxpayer.
    This approach would also require the building industry to face its skill issues. This could be as simple as having labourers capable of following manufacturers’ directions properly when fitting windows, flashings, cladding systems and so on. This was a key factor in the leaky home scenario.
    Insurers would also bring architects in line, with design constraints and manufacturers guidelines. If a homeowner wanted the architect to move beyond certain parameters, it would be the insurer the architect would have to convince, because that’s who would carry the cost if the design ran into problems.
    The phased changes in the Building Amendment Act 2009 are a watered-down version of the changes needed – changes that, ultimately, would take the taxpayer out of the picture if something went pear-shaped, or, as at Bexley [and now the rest of Christchurch], turned to custard.

This makes infinitely more sense than anything I’ve heard in recent days from people talking about “tougher” building standards.

Don’t get tough. Get smart.

And if you need to, get started on getting smart in an Enterprise Zone in Christchurch.


  1. thanks for the article dude PC, now all you have to do is convince our little local emperor, megalomaniac, TV sanctimonious drivel flowing, build the city with Councillors who say yes master,
    first we must abolish the RMA,

  2. Is this the answer to hosting the RWC in CHCH ???

  3. side issue - but Queenslanders bitterly complaining about insurers taking so long to make decisions and payments; also insurers finding lots of small print in their favour.


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