Earthquakes and Rural Churches

For the last year we have been dominated, in the Diocese of Dunedin by the fallout from the Canterbury earthquakes and the consequent need to seismically strengthen our buildings. We are the smallest diocese in the country, the least resourced and we have the largest number of  unreinforced masonry churches. Small parishes from one end of our diocese to the other have struggled with an impossible dilemma. Small congregations are faced with having to get their church, parish hall, and in some instances vicarage assessed by a structural engineer at a cost of, usually, $2-3000 per building. Then, once inspections have been made, there is the prospect that the buildings will have to be brought up to an acceptable level of strength, that is, 33.333% of the current building code. This is likely to cost a large sum of money, probably several hundred thousand dollars. The alternatives to fixing the buildings are 1) sell them; but this is problematic because obviously any new owner would also have to do the required strengthening work, and the sale price is therefore reduced almost to nil or 2) demolish them; this is problematic because demolition is itself costly, and would mean the loss of heritage buildings valued by church members and also by the wider community. Our small country congregations have been quite understandably worried by the seemingly impossible position they found themselves in.

As a diocese we are currently enacting a process of inspection for those buildings in local authority areas which have required us to do so, and for those other buildings which have volunteered to be inspected.

Local district authorities have been very slow in legislating for this strengthening work as they have been waiting for the Government to tell them what to do. The government has in turn been waiting on the release of the report of the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission. The report was released just before Christmas, and can be viewed or downloaded here. The report runs to seven (count 'em, 7) fat volumes but the one which concerns us in Dunedin is Volume 4 Earthquake Prone Buildings. It is 240 pages long, but a useful summary is found in the Building Seismic Performance document, found here.

It must be noted that this report is just that, a report. While it probably gives a pretty fair indication of how the government may act, it is the government who will eventually make the laws which will affect us. The report has good news and bad news for churches. It proposes that all NRM (non reinforced masonry) buildings be inspected within 5 years of the new legislation . If the buildings are less than 1/3 of the current building code owners will then have 10 years (that is a total of 15 from the time of the legislation being passed) to either bring them up to standard or demolish them. There are no other options proposed. This is a fairly sobering prospect for some of our churches, St. John's Invercargill and St. Paul's Cathedral, for instance. The good news for us is in proposal 8.

I will put the entire text of proposal 8 into another blog post, but basically it recognises that small country churches are not used very often, and then by quite small groups of people. Further, if they fall over they are not likely to fall onto anything or anybody or block major roads, pipelines or other infrastructure. Proposal 8 suggests that local authorities be given the discretion to either exempt rural churches from strengthening requirements or extend the period in which they must do it.

The government has invited feedback on the report and in the Building Seismic  Performance document there is a helpful form to enable people to do just that. Alternatively people can make online submissions at this address. or by email to epbreview@dbh.govt.nz .It would be EXTREMELY HELPFUL if people made submissions, supporting the inclusion of proposal 8 into any future legislation.

Following the submission process there will be a series of public meetings throughout the country, and attendance at these to learn, to question and to make views known will also be useful.

There is no doubting the importance of this legislation to the health and safety of future generations of New Zealanders. But unless we want to denude the south of its heritage buildings, there must be a realistic assessment of the low level of risk posed by small, stand alone country churches, and sensible measures enacted for their retention. 

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