Thursday, July 19, 2018

Frank Newman: Tree house troubles

Oh dear. What has the world come to? A to-do has erupted in Dunedin about the tree house grandad Trevor built. It became national news when the Dunedin City Council required the tree house to be removed because it did not meet the Building Code.

The "But it's a bloody tree house!" response did not dissuade Council Officers from exercising their serious responsibilities as an "independently accredited building control authority".

They said the offending tree house was not exempt under provisions for private playground equipment because the highest point of the structure was more than three metres from the ground, and in any case it didn't meet the "building code requirements around structural integrity and safety from falls". In other words, the Council said it needed a building consent.

There will be many hundreds if not thousands of tree houses throughout the country. Few, if any, would comply with the Building Code. Despite the universal non-compliance, there does not appear to have been a pandemic  of problems- at least no more of a problem than kids falling from trees that do not comply with the Building Code!

As it happens, in this case the tree house was actually quite well built. The mother of the kids who played in the tree house works as a Health and Safety officer. She is reported to have said, "It is bolted and nailed into the tree in numerous places. Yes it's made out of pallets, but it's got Tanalized 4x2 underneath it, it's very safe….At the end of the day if they were to hurt themselves it's me that has to look after them, so I'm not going to expose them to an unsafe structure."

She added,  "I think it's ridiculous... It's a children's playhouse, seriously get a life".

She's right. It's just a tree house and probably  a lot safer for kids than climbing a tree, and it does not need to be built to last 50 years. As parents will know, things like tree houses tend to have a life cycle about as long as a kid's attention span. Typically they lose interest and anyone who has had kids will know that they tend to grow older and their attention turns to other things that are significantly more hazardous than a tree house.

Unfortunately this appears to be yet another example of too much regulation and too little common sense. In this case a neighbour had complained about their loss of "privacy", apparently because the elevation of the platform provided a nice vantage point to view their property. In reality, it appears that there may have been some history between the tree house dwellers and their neighbours and the "privacy" complaint was the latest instalment.

Had the council restricted its response to the privacy complaint then the matter could have been resolved simply. However, once on site it appears as though the officers looked beyond the scope of the complaint.

 After becoming national news, a local councillor rode like a White Knight to the rescue, mobilising the local  Rotary Club to rebuild it to Building Code standard, using donated materials. No doubt the publicity has enhanced the councillor's prospects of re-election next year, but it was the wrong solution.

He should have taken a lead from the mother's "I think it's ridiculous" comment and gone into bat for the family. He should have asked the Dunedin City Council to apply Clause 2 of Schedule 1 of the Building Act 2004. That clause gives local authorities the power to exempt work from the requirements of the Building Code where it considers the structure "is unlikely to endanger people or any building, whether on the same land or on other property".

Had the council officers considered the risk of harm to the kids was no greater than the risk of kids climbing a tree, then they could have applied the Schedule 1 exemption. That would have been a common sense solution and put an end to the matter before it became national news. Indeed, this exemption could reasonably be applied to most of the DIY work that goes on without attracting the attention of council's regulators because no-one makes a complaint.

If local council staff are so "risk-averse" that they are not willing to apply the exemption clause to common sense situations like tree houses, then the White Knight councillor could take his campaign to the doors of Parliament and ask them to add the words "and tree houses " to the list of works specifically granted an exemption in Schedule 1.  It's not a major change so one would think this could happen pretty quickly, and most importantly, the Minister involved could get some brownie points in the process. That would make it very clear to councils that DIY tree houses are OK and they won't have to worry about covering their own backsides any more.

There is probably a very good reason why tree houses are not included in the list of exemptions to the Building Code - no-one in their right mind would think that it was needed. After all, it's just a bloody kids' tree house!

Frank Newman, an investment analyst and former councillor on the Whangarei District Council, writes a weekly article for Property Plus.

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