Consultation of building codes for New Zealand Backcountry Huts

As of a few weeks ago, it’s been possible to make a submission about proposed changes to the building code as it applies to New Zealand Backcountry Huts. If you have an interest in this kind of thing, I’d strongly suggest making a submission, even if you mostly agree with the proposal. The deadline for receiving submissions is Monday 23rd June 2008, and the consultation document is available online thanks to New Zealand’s Department of Building and Housing.

A few weeks ago when I wrote my trip report about visiting Cattle Ridge, I made a comment about the apparent absurdity of DOC’s decision to remove a bunk from the 6 bunk hut. This is apparently due to some ambiguity in the various New Zealand building codes which imply that these days, certain kinds of structures that are intended for a certain number of people require a certain number of fire exits, as well as various other things that seem more suited to populated areas. The consequence? Well somewhere along the line, someone decided that back-country huts with 6 or more bunks would require at least 2 fire exits. Because the design of many back-country huts makes it impractical to add an additional fire exit (there’s simply not enough wall space), DOC adopted the policy, in some cases, of removing one of the beds to turn 6 bunk huts into 5 bunk huts. [Edit, 19/3/2012: It turns out the sixth bunk in Cattle Ridge Hut may have been missing for other reasons, but there remain other examples of Doc staff removing bunks from huts to meet safety standards.]

This bunk-removal policy seemed absurd to us at the time (and it still does) because realistically, there’s no way to tell how many people will already be at a hut before you leave home. If you get there and it’s full, it’s unlikely that anyone will turn back simply because there’s no vacant bed inside. Typically, excess people either camp outside (if it’s reasonable and safe to do so, which it sometimes isn’t), or simply stretch out over the floor. This is exactly what happened at Triangle Hut last March, where we met a group from the Wanganui Tramping Club, and ended up stuffing 12 people into a 6 bunker. It was reasonably crowded, although even then with some good tetris tactics there was probably space for at least 3 or 4 more people on the floor if we’d needed it, and that was without any attempt at double-bunking, which is also known to occur on occasion when situations get desperate.

In short, the number of beds in a back-country hut has little effect on how many people will be using it on any given night — it only has a bearing on their comfort while they’re using it, which is why it appeared absurd to us that some kind of bureaucratic anomoly was causing bunks to be removed from huts in the Tararua Range with no clear benefit to anyone. It seems unfair to put much direct blame on the Department of Conservation, however, which (as a government department) isn’t just required by law to do a lot of things, but also has some kind of obligation to set an example of abiding by the law.

More recently when visiting Mt Richmond Forest Park, we noticed that the 6 bunk huts there hadn’t had bunks removed, but all of the huts we visited had a clearly marked second Fire Exit sign above one of the windows. Rather than being any kind of preference for Nelson, this was more likely because the 6 bunk huts in Mt Richmond Forest Park appeared to be slightly larger from the beginning than several of the huts in Tararua Forest Park. The Richmond Range huts appeared to be slightly wider, and actually had a reasonably large window off to one side, over which a fire exit sign could be placed, presumably being satisfactory enough as a second fire exit under the building codes, and meaning that the 6 bunk hut could keep its full complement of beds. As a side note this wasn’t the only extra thing they had. Unlike huts such as Cattle Ridge and Dundas (both in the Tararuas), the bunks in the Richmond Forest Park huts that we visited were actually long enough to properly fit the standard-issue Dunlop mattresses that DOC likes to put in most of its huts. In other words, they didn’t uncomfortably arch upwards in the middle.

Fortunately, it seems likely that these inconvenient bureaucratic legislative curiosities might not last for too much longer. After returning from Cattle Ridge I flicked an email to DOC to ask about the specific legislation that was causing them to make these structural adjustments. In the response, I was informed that the Department of Conservation has been working with the Department of Building and Housing to develop some proposed changes to the Building Code which would exempt back-country huts from many of the clauses in the code. The proposed changes define what a back-country hut is, and then proceed to specify exceptions for back-country huts from several clauses in the code which deal with things like artificial lighting, escape routes, providing for people with disabilities (who’d rarely if ever visit back-country huts anyway), and requiring water supplies that are guaranteed to be drinkable.

The submission document is structured into 10 questions and asks about each modified clause, providing space for comments about each proposed change. I sat down for about an hour this evening and made my own submission, which was mostly in support with a few minor concerns about exactly how things were worded. If you do feel strongly about this kind of thing and read this post in time, I’d suggest that you do the same.

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