Helping Christchurch Recover
By Douglas Wilson, Associate Director
I feel fortunate to have pursued a profession in the built environment. My formative training as a chartered quantity surveyor has given me opportunities to stretch and grow and use my skills beyond simply counting bricks.
I have worked with exceptional clients and colleagues on several iconic projects, in unique locations spanning four continents. A personally unforgettable project memory has been the time I spent living in New Zealand and playing my part in the recovery and rebuilding of Christchurch following the earthquakes which struck the city and wider region in 2010 and 2011.
The islands of New Zealand lie on the margin of two tectonic plates, the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates, which are a part of the longer chain of volcanic activity known as the Circum-Pacific Belt, or the Ring of Fire. While the country’s capital city, Wellington sits on a fault line and has building codes which take cognisance of this fact, the city of Christchurch is not located on a known fault line, and therefore its building codes did not consider seismic activity to the same extent. This circumstance contributed significantly toward the level of damage caused by the earthquakes.
You are never truly tested until you are tested …
In September 2010, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the Canterbury region of New Zealand. It was centred 11 km beneath Darfield, a small town on the Greendale fault line, which was previously unidentified. While this earthquake caused substantial property damage and personal injury, there was fortunately no loss of lives. Then, in February 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch – which is 40km east of Darfield – at a depth of only 5km. Striking at lunchtime on a working day, this aftershock to the September 2010 earthquake caused catastrophic damage to the city, and sadly resulted in a large number of deaths.
In an instant, over 90% of the retail and entertainment venues that give a city centre its vitality – shops and shopping malls, cafes and coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, theatres, music venues, sports arenas, bars, nightclubs – were either destroyed or forced to close while the structural integrity and safety of the buildings the venues occupied were assessed. Commercial and residential buildings were equally as affected. As the residents and businesses that rely on the CBD for their livelihoods and way of life came to terms with the extent of the damage, it quickly became clear that the earthquake had struck right at the heart of what makes a city.
I relocated to Christchurch in November 2011 to join the rebuilding process. On arrival, I found a city that was still very much living with the trauma of the earthquake. The scars were physical on both the buildings and infrastructure of the city, and on those who had suffered personal injury. Many homes were still without running water and, in some cases, electricity. Out-of-town retail units had been converted to offices, and this is where I was to be located for the duration of my time in Christchurch.
A lot of work had already taken place, with the initial focus centred on the demolition of unsafe buildings, the stabilising of buildings that were deemed repairable, and the restoration of essential public utility infrastructue below ground. But there was still a long way to go before the city could “return to normal” (an all-too-common phrase in our current times).
While the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) continued with its oversight of the rebuilding process, I worked on several projects related both directly and indirectly to the earthquake. I acted as a quantity surveyor on behalf of the insurance assessors in determining which affected buildings in a sprawling city-centre college campus, some dating back to the 1960s, could be repaired, renovated, or required a complete rebuild. I also acted in both a commercial and project management capacity for the local authorities on two leisure centres: one of which was significantly damaged by the earthquake, and the other was a new-build which would help give the surrounding community some means of normality again, as all the local amenities had been closed since the February 2011 earthquake while safety assessments were carried out.
I was constantly reminded of our innate ability to overcome life’s challenges… frequently reminded of the power of Mother Nature…
During my time in Christchurch, I was constantly reminded of our innate ability to overcome life’s challenges. By playing my part in the rebuilding of the city, I was able to build lasting friendships with both local and overseas colleagues. We were connected by the same desire to use our professional skills to not only contribute toward the city’s built environment, but also to shape how Christchurch would recover and define a new, modern identity that was borne out of a natural disaster.
I was also frequently reminded of the power of Mother Nature, as the constant aftershocks and tremors would become a regular part of my day-to-day life. Often, I would be woken by what I thought was another weird dream, only to learn there had just been a sizeable ‘bump in the night’. Or, I would be at work and have to pause whilst we assessed whether the latest aftershock was worthy of a building evacuation. Thankfully for me, I only had to experience one evacuation, and by the time 2011 had become 2012 I found the people had come together to provide moral and emotional support to each other, which I am confident continues in Christchurch to this day.
The local businesses had also started finding new ways to come together. Industrial buildings had been converted into retail and dining outlets. Where there was once a thriving CBD with long-standing commercial and retail destinations, shipping containers had been effectively repurposed to create a container shopping mall.
For personal reasons, I had to leave Christchurch before the main rebuilding work was completed. Indeed, as of today there is much work still to be done. Even so, the time I spent working with a truly international team of colleagues, clients and contractors stands apart.
You are never truly tested until you are tested, and our common ability to overcome obstacles and find new ways of solving the old problems of providing food, shelter, and a sense of connection, are themes that I find myself revisiting as we navigate our way through the coming months and years ahead on the journey to recovery post COVID-19.