Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A heritage perspective on Christchurch

Christchurch Earthquake 22/02/11
The recent earthquakes in Christchurch left hundreds dead, thousands homeless, and tens of thousands financially affected.  Without detracting from what is clearly a human tragedy, the loss of heritage buildings is emerging as yet another tragedy.

Last week the Greytown Community Heritage Trust hosted our annual history lecture.  The guest speaker this year was Win Clark.  Win is an engineer and executive officer for the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering.  He is a regular visitor to Christchurch where he is involved in assessing the damage and providing advice about reconstruction and earthquake strengthening.

The New Zealand Historic Places Trust maintains a Register of Historic Places that represents the national schedule of New Zealand's treasured heritage places.  Historic places are further divided into two categories.  Category I status is given to places of 'special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value'.  Category II status is given to places of 'historical or cultural heritage significance or value'.

Christchurch has a broad distribution of Category I and Category II damaged buildings.  Surviving buildings tended to have four characteristics:

  • Regular form
  • Good materials
  • Good workmanship
  • Good maintenance

He gave one example of a row of buildings that had suffered extensive damage.  The ground floors were tenanted by low-rent retailers.  The upper floors were vacant.  The building owner(s) had allowed the buildings to fall into disrepair.  Maintenance had not been kept up.

Another example he gave was a pair of semi-detached residential dwellings.  The owners had removed internal walls to open living areas up.  The walls were not load bearing so the owners were perfectly entitled to remove them.  However, during the February earthquakes, the internal walls inhibited lateral movement in a way that was not anticipated.  Those dwellings that still had the internal walls fared better than those that didn’t.

One building that escaped largely undamaged was a fire station.  The owners had installed internal bracing a few years earlier.

The fate of other heritage buildings is entirely in the hands of their owners.  In each case the issue is one of economic viability.  There needs to be an owner who is both willing and financially able to save the building.  In some cases a building owner is keen to maintain the original building fa├žade and build behind it.  However, insurers are not willing to insure the composite structure.  And owners don’t want the liability in case someone else is injured in a future earthquake.

Although I understand the financial pressures on building owners, it is a pity to see these heritage buildings lost.

Photo courtesy of author Geof Wilson under Creative Commons licence.

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