by Andy Foster
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker wrote recently that Wellington will have to make choices about protecting its heritage from earthquakes, just as Christchurch now has to do. He’s right, although we don’t have to make agonising decisions with our city in ruins. He’s also right that, as owners and as a community, we may not be able to afford to strengthen every heritage building. That means making choices. We will need to do that carefully and thoughtfully.
We have not lost a single heritage listed building since the current District Plan was notified in 1994. We’ve also added protections for the character of the older inner city suburbs, but as they are comprised of largely small residential units the earthquake assessment process doesn’t apply.
Ideally we want to get through the process of ensuring resilience without losing any heritage buildings. But that seems unlikely. Indeed Historic Places Trust has acknowledged the likely need to make choices.
Your Council has long taken earthquake resilience seriously. We’ve all just been reminded we live in a seismically active area. The building code in Wellington requires our buildings to be three times as strong as say Auckland’s (to achieve the same % code rating). For 20 years we’ve been investing millions of dollars in strengthening roads, bridges, reservoirs, tunnels, and pipes. We also have a strong focus on working with other key agencies – lifeline operators – and in promoting community and homeowner preparedness.
Wellington is light years ahead of the rest of the country in assessing whether buildings are earthquake prone. Many buildings were assessed in the 1980s, and have subsequently been strengthened or demolished. Some, I think, we regret having lost. Just six existing buildings now have the ‘time’s up” call, but these include category 1 Erskine College and Chapel.
Your Council began a comprehensive programme to assess commercial and apartment buildings seven years ago. Some 5600 pre-1976 buildings were considered potentially earthquake prone. 4,851 have been assessed to 30 June. That 4,851 is about the same as the rest of the country – put together – and there are believed to be some 70,000 buildings nationwide to be assessed. We expect to complete all assessments this financial year.
4,239 of the assessed buildings have been deemed not to be earthquake prone, while another 611 have been deemed less than 34% of NBS. 134 of the 611 are heritage buildings, with another 39 heritage and monuments still to be assessed. We have 835 buildings heritage listed or in heritage areas, so the vast majority are not considered earthquake prone. That is good news.
Buildings are required to be 34% or above ‘New Build Standard’ to avoid being considered earthquake prone. That means that in the event of a so called ‘moderate earthquake’ (usually considered around 7.3 in magnitude but we all know there are complexities such as depth of quake etc) the building is expected not to cause loss of life. It doesn’t necessarily mean the building will remain usable. If we want buildings to be usable, a higher standard of strengthening may be required. Many owners are doing that for market reasons anyway. They want to retain tenants, and people want to be able to continue to operate after a quake. As a city, we will want to ensure key heritage buildings survive any major event too.
The lessons from Christchurch are all too painful. Personally I cannot comprehend how Government and Council have allowed the Cathedral that gave our southern city its name and is the symbol of the city not to be made safe and restored. Another big big lesson from Christchurch is that we cannot have our few transport routes blocked by dangerous buildings and have the central city closed down for months and years. That’s been a catastrophe for Christchurch. In Wellington with our more limited transport options it would be potentially far far worse.
Building owners currently have between 10 and 20 years to strengthen their buildings depending on the nature and level of use and it’s expected that our assessments will be complete by June 2014. The recent announcement by Government does not change these. The new timeframes announced by Government only apply to buildings assessed once the new law is in place.
Many building owners including heritage building owners have already moved to strengthen their buildings. Examples include the Hope Gibbons, Huddart Parker and Whitcoulls buildings and the Carillon, Embassy, Town Hall (now committed), Thistle Hall, City Gallery, and Stewart Dawson’s corner (recently announced). Sometimes strengthening is quite cheap, at other times it runs to many millions of dollars. Private owners will tend to strengthen where it makes sense for them to do so. Council, as well as strengthening its own buildings, has also long supported private owners with grants to undertake work such as up front engineering and conservation assessments. That is some recognition that heritage listing is about public rather than private benefit.
The challenge will be where it isn’t economically viable or the owner doesn’t have the wherewithal. Eventually the yellow stickers become red stickers and the buildings become unusable. The iconic Erskine College in Island Bay is in just this position, with a stand-off between local heritage interests and the owner, Council and Historic Places Trust. The question is which buildings are the must save icons, what level of public support is reasonable (and won’t that be a debate!), what mechanisms for support might be used, and what ownership rights and public access rights might flow from public money being involved.
Government has also been asked repeatedly to assist. Allowing strengthening costs to be expensed rather than capitalised would be a significant help for many buildings. It would also seem a good deal safer – and cheaper (actually a small fraction of the cost) than picking up the pieces as it has had to in Canterbury. There is also work being done looking at financing and insurance issues, because these are often major challenges for building owners.
What is good in Wellington is that many of our most significant icons are already strengthened. However there remain some very significant buildings still needing strengthening. For me that list is headed by St Gerard’s, St Mary of the Angels, the Public Trust Building, the Opera House, Turnbull House and Shed 11. It critically also includes much of Cuba Street and Courtenay Place which clearly collectively contribute immensely to Wellington’s character. It also includes important suburban buildings like Erskine Chapel and College, St Marys (Karori), Northland Fire Station and St Johns (Johnsonville), examples of buildings which are important contributors to the character of their communities, despite being of lower heritage ranking. Of course there is the current debate over the category I Harcourts building which is prominent in Lambton Quay, though there is clearly a debate about whether it is actually even earthquake prone.
As I said at the start, ideally we want to ensure resilience without losing any heritage buildings. It’s important that Council, the Historic Places Trust and property owners work together, with Government support, to help the city get through this process with the best possible outcomes.
I’ve done my inexpert ‘top 40 in Wellington’ (below) and noted which have and haven’t been strengthened. This absolutely doesn’t represent ‘council policy,’ but I believe we want to start this vitally important debate. Have I missed something you think should be in the top tier – something that would be an irreplaceable loss? I also want to be very clear that this is not to diminish the importance of anything not on my list.
What would your choices be? What are the icons of Wellington? Which are the at-risk buildings that cannot possibly be allowed to be lost? When should public money be involved and if so what ownership and access rights might go with it? This is an important debate, and it is one for the whole community.
My top 40 are in three groups, each alphabetically ordered. The Historic Places Trust category is listed beside the building name, so (1) means category one. I also give the year of construction and the architect.
Still to be assessed formally but expected to be fine
1965-81. Sir Basil Spence
Cuba St (various)
Multiple buildings – some strengthened, some earthquake prone
Includes category 1 BNZ and Logan Brown buildings
Erskine Chapel (1)
1930. John Swan
Stand off between owner, Council, and SECT
Futuna Chapel (1)
Assessed at 79% – not EQP
1961. John Scott
Iconic example of Maori – European architecture.
Government Buildings (1)
Restored and strengthened
1876. William Clayton
Biggest wooden buildings in the Southern Hemisphere
Old BNZ (actually 4 buildings together) (1 and 2)
Still to be formally assessed – but should be fine as were base isolated in 1990s
No1 1901 (cat1)
No2 1904 (cat2)
No3 1885 (cat1)
No 4 1903 (cat2)
No 1,2,3 Thomas Turnbull and Sons. No 4 Hislop and Walden
Old St Pauls (1)
No strengthening required
1866. Rev Frederick Thatcher
Parliament Building (1)
1911-12. Govt Architect
St Gerrards Church and Monastery (1)
1908 and 1932. John Swan & Frederick de Jersey Clere
St James Theatre (1)
1912. Henry Eli White
St Mary of the Angels (1)
1919-22. Frederick de Jersey Clere and Llewellyn Williams
Town Hall (1)
1902-04. Joshua Charlesworth
Strengthening work agreed to start Nov 2013
Wellington Railway Station (1)
1934-7. Gray Young, Morton and Young
AMP Building (1)
Assessed at 65% – not EQP
1927-28. Clere and Clere
Carillon / War Memorial (1)
Assessed at 14% – yellow stickered
1931-2. Gummer and Ford
Currently being strengthened
Courtenay Place – Blair – Allen St precinct
Various buildings – some EQP – some fine
Blair and Allen St are almost entirely strengthened
Assessed as EQP
1909. John Sydney Swan
General Assembly Library Parliament (1)
Yet to be assessed
1898-1901. Thomas Turnbull
High Court Building (1)
1879-81. PFM Burrows
Hunter Building at Victoria University (1)
1906. Penty and Blake
Karori Reservoir Valve Tower (1)
1874. Nicholas Marchant ?
Katherine Mansfield Birthplace (1)
Assessed – not EQP
Public Trust Building (1)
1909. John Campbell
Stewart Dawsons Corner (3 buildings)
Strengthening of corner building about to commence to lift from 35 to 70% of NBS. Others strengthened already
1887/1904 Poys Bldg (cat2)
1901 Corner building (cat1)
1900 Fletcher’s Bldg (cat2)
Unknown / William Charles Chatfield / Unknown architect
Thistle Inn (1)
Assessed not EQP
1866. architect unknown
Te Rauparaha was a famous early patron
Wellington Rowing Club (1)
1894. Frederick de Jersey Clere
Ashleigh Court, cnr Rintoul and Riddiford Sts, Newtown (2)
Building A yellow stickered
Building B – not EQP
1928. A and K Henderson
Embassy Theatre (1)
Strengthened to 95%
1924. Llewellyn Williams
Erskine Main Block (1)
1906. John Sydney Swan
Government House (1)
Strengthened – 100%
1910-12. John Campbell and Claude Paton
Governor General’s residence
To be assessed
1847, extended 1903
Henry Chapman/ Joshua Charlesworth
British High Commissioner’s residence
Hope Gibbons Building (2)
Currently being strengthened
1925-26. JM Dawson
Kirkcaldie and Stains (2)
1909, 1928. William Turnbull and Llewellyn Williams
St Johns Willis St (1)
Currently in assessment process
1885. Thomas Turnbull
St Marys Karori (2)
1911. Frederick de Jersey Clere
St Peters Willis St (1)
Currently in assessment process
1879. Thomas Turnbull
Shed 7 (1)
1896. Frederick de Jersey Clere
State Opera House(1)
1912. William Pitt
Turnbull House (1)
1916. William Turnbull
Andy Foster is a Wellington City Councillor