Waiting for the dust to settle

11 October 2013


The city of Christchurch, New Zealand still finds itself deep in the process of deconstruction. In an era of listed buildings and increasingly dense urban developments that take time to demolish. What effect do lengthy urban deconstruction have on the crane business? Zak Garner-Purkis went to the city to find out.

In a market such as New Zealand large construction projects carry extra significance. These type of jobs are not a regular occurrence and whilst major government infrastructure developments such as the Auckland Waterview Connection motorway tunnels or the proposed NZD630m expressway north of Wellington are the source of work for the lifting industry, one project hangs over all others: the redevelopment of Christchurch. The job is unique, particularly for a country the size of New Zealand because the entire central business district (CBD) has to be rebuilt following an earthquake in 2011. Although the threat of natural disaster is a part of life in many areas of New Zealand the effects of the 2011 quake are on a scale that has not been seen in for a long time.

"The situation in Christchurch is a long process, it is now about the shift from deconstruction to normal work" explains Bruce Whiley of Titan Cranes "We haven't yet seen the full amount of work happening that was expected, there are very few buildings up in the central business district (CBD). It is still very much about preparation; there is only really one new building. But a lot of companies invested quite heavily down there, we think there might be some movement there in the 3rd quarter of the year, but we couldn't be certain on that. A lot of businesses sent people down there too early. The planning stage slows things down a lot. The local Iwi (Maori people) need to be consulted and the general public must also be consulted."

New Zealand's planning process may be one factor slowing the Christchurch's redevelopment, but another is economics. If the quake had happened prior to the 2008 global financial crisis, perhaps more money from the private sector would have been available for the city's rebuilding. But the economic climate that the rebuild has to take place in has been tough. An extended deconstruction process has also slowed progress towards the rebuild, all of which has meant the large amount of anticipated crane work has not yet materialised.

Convincing residents who have moved out of the city back in is another issue too, two years on since the disaster the centre remains largely uninhabited and with businesses and individuals alike establishing themselves outside the city, it is going to be a challenge to encourage individuals back into the CBD. Particularly in a financial climate where speculation on residential properties is rare, Robert Carden of TRT explains: "Christchurch is still in the deconstruction phase, we are waiting on buildings to be re-built. One difficulty is that developers need tenants, which aren't necessarily easy to find, particularly as many have moved out of the city following the disaster. The government is providing some anchor tenancies, but it's all about convincing people to come back.

"The methods of consultation that exists in New Zealand can be bypassed by the government if the development is classified as being a 'project of national significance'. This gets around the obligatory procedures that can slow a project down. It gets around the rules for the big developments; the smaller to medium size jobs still have a fair amount of red tape, everyone has to agree. I think that there is all the will in the world, in ten years' time it will be a great city, but it's going to take time, this is a long-term project."

The deconstruction phase has provided work for some local companies specialising in the field, one of these was Smith Crane and Construction who had the task of deconstructing the 18-storey Clarendon Towers, one of the oldest buildings in the city. Clive Badderly, civil engineering manager of Smith Crane and Construction explains: "This was the most complex and dangerous demolition to be undertaken post earthquake due to the unstable nature of the structure. Over 600 steel brackets weighing 30t had to be installed from the top level to ground level. This was at a cost of NZD400,000 before the building could be accessed to start deconstruction. The building has been cut apart level be level with high frequency diamond wire saws at a rate of approximately one level every eight days. The whole job took exactly a year from January 2012 through to January 2013"

The issues surrounding the redevelopment of Christchurch pose a number of questions about the role of the construction industry in the aftermath of natural disasters. In an era of listed buildings, in cities where large structures will remain standing after an earthquake but must be removed, the deconstruction phase carries increased importance. In these situations the source of work can be unsual. One problem in Christchurch following the earthquake came from historic chimneys on a number of houses that had become a safety hazard follwing the quake. Titan Cranes' Bruce Whiley says: "The deconstruction job has been a major one: 30,000 chimneys had to come off the roofs of properties in the city and the deconstruction of historic buildings sometimes had to take place brick by brick."

Delays caused by this complex deconstruction phase have meant that two years on the full details of the redevelopment still remain unclear says Whiley: "Nobody really knows what types of crane will be required yet or what the project will entail. It's a major task to fix the country's third largest city. The rebuild of an entire CBD is unprecedented in New Zealand."

Time, it seems, is the crucial factor. the determination to rebuild Christchurch is there, it is now about more patience, and a long wait for a new city to rise from the ashes of the old.

Removing a roof hip from the dome of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrement
The centre still recquires a large amount of work before the re-development can begin in earnest
Looking along Cashel Street & Cashel Mall. (south side)