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Saturday, 6 August 2011

Its tough in China

Some of us in or next to the hill suburbs, and in the Residential Red Zone, will not be glad to be leaving our properties. A few will decide to ignore the requirement to move, and wait it out. The time will come when there is an ultimatum: move immediately or be forcibly removed.

In China such situations are commonplace, and carried out with a lot less due process. The following article is from the Channel Newsasia website (here):
BEIJING: Demolition is said to be the leading cause of social conflicts and public discontent in China last year.
A Beijing-based social research centre said problems related to compensation and evictions are the most common.
49-year-old Lu Peixin, a long-time resident of Gejia village in the outskirts of Beijing, came home one day to find her house demolished.
Even though negotiations with the property developer on compensation had dragged on for years, she had not expected the sudden demolition of her home.
Lu said: "I'm the resident. This is my house. I live here. If you want to demolish, you have to discuss with me. The least you can do is to get my consent. You have to get in touch with me. But no one contacted me."
Lu's temporary shelter is a tent pitched next to her former home, where she hopes to salvage her valuables.
Another affected resident is Song Baoying, whose home was partly demolished.
She now lives in anxiety, wondering when the bulldozers might next show up at her doorstep.
The property developer firm involved in both of the demolitions refused to answer any calls from Channel NewsAsia, but analysts say disputes like these are not uncommon.
The disagreements often involve inadequate or below market-value compensation, or affected residents receiving only part of the promised compensation.
But what makes these cases especially tricky is the local government's involvement in the sale of land and their relationship with property developers.
Liu Wei, a lawyer, said: "It's hard when the cases are linked to the government's interest. Even though there're no hard and fast rules, demolition cases related to government's interests can seldom be resolved through China's legal system."
Another thorny issue is the arbitrary standards of compensation by property developers.
Lu said: "They use all kinds of tactics to get residents to sign and relocate - no questions asked. Some people get 6000, or 8000, 11000, up to 14000 (yuan per square metre). There might be 20 different prices for similar units in a neighbourhood. We ordinary people don't know what this is all about."
Happening across many parts of China, forced demolitions had often led to tragic and even devastating consequences. In Anhui province, for example, a resident whose house was forcibly demolished killed herself by swallowing arsenic, while elsewhere self-immolations had taken place."
Analysts said the process of demolition and relocation would be less problematic if information was made more transparent.
Affected residents should also be given the chance to participate in the process and negotiate for their rights in accordance with the law.
Otherwise, progress and development built on the broken tiles and dreams of the disgruntled will surely be a recipe for social discontent and even disaster.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Insurance and Savings Ombudsman and Disputes

The New Zealand Herald Stuff had an item in today's edition on insurance disputes and the Insurance and Savings Ombudsman (ISO). Written by Janine Starks, it briefly covers the role of the ISO and the way it can operate. Chances are we will soon see insurance companies modifying their own procedures to get early resolution of disputes, but recourse to the ISO is always a possibility.

The article is here.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Rebuilds - smaller houses

We, like many others, are likely to be a rebuild. While waiting for formal confirmation there has been time to check out what is available. The first thing we noticed, other than the unrealistically high prices of land, was the assumption by major building companies that everyone wants a big house. This of course is not true, and also undesirable from a environmental point of view.

A few companies have had a range of smaller houses on their books and there are indications that some of the other companies are starting to cater for those who need a smaller house. As we find out about houses smaller than 150sq m, and visit their show homes, it will be blogged. In addition, information about the companies will also be put on a separate page (see the heading Smaller Houses under INFORMATION PAGES on the right).

Click on the company name to go to their website.

Timber interiors and exteriors. There is a show home at Hornby, opposite McDonalds, however it is much bigger than 150sq m. Lockwood homes have a range of smaller homes that look okay on paper but need a walk through. The web site allows you to download some of the plans (look for the Initial series) but unfortunately it is locked so they can't be printed out. Not really user friendly; nice houses though.

Mainly brick clad houses although any cladding can be used at a cost. The city show home complex is in Papanui on the Main North Road (plus Kaiapoi and Rolleston and soon Lincoln - all of these show homes are over 150sq m). Stonewood Homes have just introduced a new range of smaller houses called the Bungalow Series (75 - 128 sq m) to fit below their First Choice Selection (142 - 149sq m). As of today the Bungalow Series was not mentioned on the website, but brochures are available at the show home. The two show homes are both over 150sq m.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Geotechnical reports: transparency and accountability

Many in the Residential Red Zone will have a general understanding why their land has been put in that category, others won't be sure. Some living on the margins inside the Green Zones will not be confident about the decision to place them there. Quite a few in-betweeners may find their eventual classification a bit of a mystery. The only way to encourage understanding and confidence is to make publicly available the same detailed geotechnical information that was provided to the government.

To have made decisions down to the individual section level implies that there is significant detailed and overall information available. The Landcheck website (here) says, as it has from the time of the announcements in June:
Since the first earthquake struck in September last year, extensive geotechnical work has been undertaken to assess the state of the affected land. While this work is ongoing, information on the state of land, including how badly damaged land is and whether land will be suitable for rebuilding, is now available.
What has not been said is when and how this detailed information will be released publicly.

So far we have been reasonably trusting of CERA and the government on technical details. Now, however, many are faced with the extremely important issues of what package to accept, or if the zoning is to be appealed. Without access to detailed information any decision made is not fully informed. There will be cases where the status of the land becomes an insurance issue, or affects mortgage decisions. Discussions with insurance companies or banks may be prejudiced without full information about the land.

A second aspect of making the reports available is accountability. Those who have prepared the reports, and all who have or will act upon them, must be accountable for both the content and the decisions that arise from them. We need to be able to measure the gap between what has been said, and recommended, and what is happening. We need to know that whatever we base our decisions on is sound.

An important example of the need for transparency is the reclassification of Kairaki. In the Tonkin & Taylor report, released on the EQC website in February (just before the 22nd), the land was generally considered suitable for rebuilding. Obviously something changed - we need to know what it was, and whether it could have been anticipated. The relevant parts of the report state:
Section 7.2  The subsurface materials underlying the subject area of Kairaki and Pines Beach are assessed to have generally returned to their pre earthquake strength, with the same liquefaction potential as before the earthquake. As such the continued current residential use and remediation of properties for this subject area is considered technically feasible.
Section 7.3  In terms of Section 106 of the Resource Management Act 1991, and Section 71 of the Building Act 2004, we consider that the risk of land damage due to a future seismic event is sufficiently low that building consents should continue to be issued for residential developments within the subject area in accordance with existing procedures.
This is not an exercise in blame. What is happening in Canterbury is outside the experience and knowledge of everyone. What has to be seen, in print, is the considered view of those who have as good an understanding as there can be. Making the information public will expose it to the widest possible discussion and expert analysis. From that exposure those who are uncertain, or in disagreement with their zoning, will gain the information needed to decide the best option for them.

We also need to know, as part of dealing with a wide range of emotions, what happened and why we are being displaced.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Cardboard Cathedral

Speaking personally, I like the idea of a cardboard cathedral. The Press has a photograph of what it might look like here.

The designer, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, has a style that encompasses both beauty and simplicity. One of his specialities is the construction of buildings using paper; one of his philosophies is making beauty available to the masses. The Japanese have used paper for art and interior design for many centuries so the extension of its use to exterior structures is wonderfully evolutionary. The extent to which he has used paper in both permanent and temporary construction can be seen on his website (here).

Shigeru Ban's work and help to those caught in disasters has been written about in:
  • Australian Design Review (here)
  • Open Architecture Network (here)
  • The New York Times (here)
  • Los Angeles Times (here)
  • Time magazine (here, here)
  • Interview Magazine (here)
Not everyone is happy with the idea of spending $4m on a cardboard cathedral (surely more useful than a $2m plastic waka). They are entitled to their opinion however their priorities, while understandable, are not universal. I for one would happily stick with the chemical toilet for another month or three for a sung evensong on a winter's night. That would bring me more solace than a porcelain flushing loo. Each to their own, without trying to denigrate or rob the other.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Timing of Orange zone decisions

Roger Sutton released a media update today covering the Housing Expo and other things.

Amongst the information in the media update was the following:
"Currently the expected timeframes for orange zone resident announcements are:
  • For the Waimakariri District – including Kaiapoi Northeast, Kaiapoi South (Courtenay Drive area), parts of Kaiapoi West, and Pines Beach - 3-4 weeks
  • Upper Brooklands, Spencerville and Southshore - 4-6 weeks
  • Parts of Avonside, Burwood East, Hoon Hay, Parklands, Redwood, South New Brighton, Wainoni, Waltham - 2-3 months
  • Rest of Christchurch City and Kaiapoi Lakes - 3-5 months
We will write to residents again in the weeks ahead as timeframes for the announcements become more definite."
The full text of Roger Sutton's update is here.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

A quake-safe house

Currently 5,000+ Residential Red Zone home owners are starting to look for somewhere else to live. By the time the White and Orange zones are sorted there could be as many as 15,000 on the hunt for a replacement home. For each of them there is the question: what constitutes an earthquake safe house? This is a very important consideration because there will be more earthquakes, we just don't know where, when, or what size.

Safe can be looked at in two ways. The first is the most obvious - anyone inside the building during an earthquake will be protected from injury or death. The second is financial: is the house a safe investment? Will it experience major damage and require expensive repairs, or an even more expensive rebuild? Until now this has not been seen as important, however it is likely that insurance companies may set premiums for some properties on the basis of their perception of how well it will stand up to an earthquake. Insurance excesses are likely to increase, and that will be another financial risk.

There is no officially published checklist of good and bad features to be aware of when assessing a house, which makes house hunting difficult (Maybe CERA, BRANZ and DBH could knock one up in a couple of months?). Sometimes the value of the good features are undermined by the bad. For example: timber houses with timber cladding and roofing iron are light, flexible and strong. Clearly a safe structure. Put it onto a concrete pad foundation that has a shape prone to cracking (anything that is not a square, rectangular or circular e.g. T shaped foundation pad, L shapes, H shapes) and the risk of structural damage is increased.

For existing buildings it cannot be assumed that because they have survived more or less intact so far each one is as good as the day it was built. Many older styles are at risk because of construction materials and techniques, weakened structure (rotting timber framing, inadequate foundations) and lack of maintenance. Also consider that a "Green Stickered" house is not necessarily a safe or sound one. The Green sticker only means the building was considered safe to enter and appeared to be in much the same structural condition as prior to the earthquake. This conclusion was reached as the result of a very brief inspection, often without going inside the house.

All styles of building have a finite life and a few may be near their use by date. This is likely to be a factor mainly where you are attracted to older style houses made out of bricks or other forms of masonry. See here about the Royal Society of New Zealand's paper on building deign in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes and the section on a building's "earthquake life".

New houses designed and built to the new earthquake standards can be expected to be safe, however "exotic" designs such as lots of glass or large and non-square concrete pad foundations are likely to be areas at risk of damage. Some of the plans currently advertised by building companies have exotic designs that may attract higher insurance costs.

There are qualified people who can do a better job of assessing a property than we can, and banks and perhaps insurance companies will want to see reports from them before they agree to do business with us. However that costs money, so a certain level of DIY assessment skill will be needed to weed out the obvious risks. The following links take you to good places to start. Some of them are overseas and so legislative requirements will be different, however the basic information remains valuable. If you have time to read only one then the BRANZ initial observation is it.

New Zealand

  • Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ) quoted here on initial observations on what failed and what survived the February 22nd earthquake.
  • Royal Society of New Zealand's brochure THE CANTERBURY EARTHQUAKES: Answers to critical questions about buildings A bit light on useful stuff, it does give some handy background. Here.
North America

  • Canadian Government's website How would your home stand up? is designed for homeowners to identify structural issues in their own homes. Here. 
  • California's Association of Bay Area Governments website Housing Vulnerable to Damage in Earthquakes looks at construction types and the type of damage that might arise. Here.