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MDC hoses down appeal option

Masterton District Council [MDC] says it cannot appeal a previous government agency decision that allowed Rathkeale College not to install sprinklers in a dormitory – despite it being held up by national media as an example of why legislative changes may be desirable in the wake of last week’s fire at Loafer’s Lodge in which it has been confirmed five people died.

Wellington’s Loafers Lodge had no sprinkler system but was nonetheless compliant with the building code, which does not currently require sprinklers to be retrofitted in older buildings.

Following the fire last week, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins asked the Ministry of Housing to review the building regulations for high-density housing.

Asked if it would now consider an appeal of the Rathkeale decision after the Loafer’s Lodge fire, a council spokesperson said MDC accepts the 2021 determination by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment [MBIE] in favour of Rathkeale was legally binding and that such determinations “are made after due consideration of the facts” – and noted it is too late to appeal in any case.

Three years ago, Rathkeale College applied for a building consent to upgrade Repton House’s 88-person dormitory, but MDC refused the consent because – although it included many provisions to improve fire safety – it didn’t have sprinklers.

The school appealed the decision to MBIE, the national authority on fire risk in building consents, which sided with Rathkeale in May 2021, reversing MDC’s decision.

MBIE determined the council “did not correctly exercise its powers when it refused to grant the building consent”.

The school said installing a sprinkler system was not site appropriate, and a fire engineer report stated retrofitting a sprinkler system for full compliance on an existing building was “not considered to be reasonably practicable”.

There was a lack of adequate water supply due to the site not being connected to Masterton’s water infrastructure, and MBIE’s determination found that a tank and pump system would have been needed to provide the water pressure necessary for sprinklers.

The multi-million-dollar upgrade, which was completed this year, saw the installation of extra fire doors, an alarm system connected to the fire brigade, fire-retardant wall linings, and sensors.

Trinity Schools Trust Board chief executive Cath Archer said that the upgrade made the best possible provisions to mitigate fire risk given the nature of the site.

“Look, we did go top shelf and exceed all the national standards – the safety of our students is at the forefront of everything we do,” she said.

“But in Rathkeale’s case, it wasn’t practical – being on a rural site and not connected to town water, there wasn’t the infrastructure to put in sprinklers.”

Archer said that the two boarding houses at St Matthew’s are connected to the town water supply and do have sprinklers.

“After the Loafer’s Lodge fire, any government review into the building code will take a long time,” she said.

“At the moment, the code is pretty darn rigorous; the review should focus on buildings that are just sitting there being checked off rather than those that are being upgraded beyond the current fire standards.”

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Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age who regularly writes about education. He is originally from Wellington and is interested in environmental issues and public transport.

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