Regular readers of this irregular journal may remember that sometimes your correspondent organises tours but can’t attend ’em. Unfortunately, I missed the Britomart visit in favour of a crook two-year-old—although luckily she was well enough to come down to town with me and hand over the hard hats to the site visitors.
Thanks to the great kindness of Matt Goodall, I have a few pictures from the tour to share with you all. My apologies for the delay in getting these on the web.
This brief post will (hopefully) serve as something of a placeholder. It has been suggested that we might be in with a shot of going back in 2018—which will no doubt be welcome news to the sixty-odd people who signed up but didn’t get a spot.
A lightning-fast summary: Hopetoun Alpha was built in 1875. It’s mass concrete, meaning concrete with no internal reinforcing steel. Built for the Congregationalist church, this is a Neoclassical temple in the Doric order, with a charming and luminous timber interior. It’s in Beresford Square, close to the intersection of Pitt St and K Road.
If you’re reading this, you likely know that concrete is pretty strong in compression, but not great in tension. It’s hard to crush, but it doesn’t like to bend. You’ll also have a pretty good idea that 140-year-old buildings can move around a bit: slowly, as the ground settles over the course of the years; and quickly, in extreme cases—for instance, when the ground shakes. So the task that John O’Hagan of Compusoft Engineering has accepted in assessing a building like this is twofold. Firstly, to evaluate how well the building has coped with all the slow movement and the vicissitudes of time, and secondly, to consider how well it might handle an earthquake or a severe weather event. John shared some of the process of making this assessment with us, as we walked around the building.
To understand how the building will perform, you need to know exactly what’s made from, and how the pieces are put together. Over the last few weeks, John and the owners of Hopetoun Alpha have carried out a number of investigations to establish this. They’ve been underneath the building, into the roof void, and everywhere in between. John began today’s tour by explaining the structural system of the building.
The building is a long rectangle, shaped somewhat like a shoebox. Its two long walls, the side walls, get narrower in two steps as they get higher. At ground level, they’re about 640mm thick. The site slopes, but the walls come up to establish a level for the floor. At floor height, they step in to 420mm, creating a ledge both inside and out. On the outside, the ledge demarcates the plinth on which the building sits, and the walls change colour to emphasise this. On the inside, the step creates a handy support for the floor joists.
It’s a very common detail for “masonry” buildings of all kinds. As we’ve learnt on our tours, brick buildings often contain a similar step (or sometimes just a socket in the course) into which floor joists can be inserted. The problem is, of course, what happens when the walls move so much that the joists fall off their ledge or out of their sockets!
The walls step in at ceiling height, too, and there the step supports the ceiling trusses, which are likely made from jarrah. John shared a drawing of the trusses.
He noted that although the trusses are statically indeterminate, they were well analysed by the designer for resisting gravity loads. The steel ties that you see connecting the vertical members to the bottom chord are wrapped around and pinned, forcing the verticals into tension. The diagonals carry compression. The trusses are sound and strong, and seem to have performed well. John mentioned that nails seem to have been a scarce resource at the time of construction, as there were very few to be seen in the timberwork! Fasteners of all kinds were clearly at a premium: a single bolt connects the front truss to the gable end. (As you can imagine, this is not ideal.)
The trusses span the main hall laterally, but there is far less roof structure in the longitudinal direction. What’s there is more or less entirely cosmetic—boxwork, panels, trim, ventilators. This meant that the engineers needed to wear abseiling harnesses to get up in the ceiling for a look—there’s not much to stand on and a fair way to fall.
As you can perhaps divine from the photo above, the mezzanine or gallery wasn’t part of the original build. The windows on the long walls would probably look different if this were the case (c.f. the smaller auditorium at the Auckland Town Hall.) The addition of the mezzanine meant some additional supports were needed underfloor. Cast iron columns carry the load down to neat brick piers—far neater than the original footings, which seem to have been pragmatically cast inside a few handy barrels!
Mass (of) concrete
The entrance to the building presents the greatest challenge for modelling and analysis. There are large volumes of concrete in the pediment and the stairwells on either side, and, as noted, this section is poorly connected to the roof truss.
There are decent-sized spans between the columns—approaching two metres—and of course the concrete is being asked to cross that gap without tensile reinforcement. This part of the building may yet require more analysis.
She’ll be right
When the mezzanine was put in, Hopetoun Alpha was also extended at the rear. This allowed a stage to be built and an organ installed, and to accommodate this a large opening was made in the back wall of the existing hall. And the building didn’t fall down.
It didn’t fall down, but over the long years, a large crack has developed in the wall. This is probably the result of the foundations moving slightly outward, and of tension forces in the reduced thickness of wall above the stage. Whatever the cause, the crack extends from below a round window above the stage (not visible from inside) to the top of the proscenium. Then the crack starts again at the left-hand edge of the bottom of the stage aperture, and continues down to ground level.
How significant the cracks are, structurally speaking, is yet to be determined. But it seems to me that some form of strengthening will be required to make up for the diminished capacity of the wall.
Solution, general form
I want to preface what follows by saying that John made it clear that he didn’t want to talk about specific solutions for Hopetoun Alpha. It’s too early for that—too early, even, to say for sure whether work is needed at all, until the NBS rating is determined. Instead, we talked about some hypothetical solutions for a building of this type. Please read the rest of this post in that spirit. Your mileage may vary.
The major concern in a building of this size and style would be the out-of-plane response of the long walls. This means, if an earthquake shook the building from side to side (as opposed to back and forth), how well would the long walls cope with being flexed?
It might be sufficient to support them by connecting the floor joists to the walls in the basement. (At the moment the joists are just resting on the ledge you saw in the picture above.) As well as that, you’d probably put a plywood diaphragm across above the ceiling panels to tie the walls together at the top. By doing this, you’d end up with the long walls far better supported by the in-plane elements of the building.
But if floor and ceiling diaphragms weren’t enough, the mezzanine might present an opportunity. Site visitors may remember hearing about the truss inside the gallery at the Auckland Town Hall. There’s obviously no room, and no need, for a truss inside the mezzanine at Hopetoun Alpha. But the mezzanine itself has some inherent strength, aided by its tongue-and-groove flooring. This could be enhanced with some inserted material. If the mezzanine were then connected more securely to the wall, it would serve as a brace at about halfway up the wall height. The walls could then be modelled as rocking about the pivot of the mezzanine, improving their performance. Tying the structure together better would be completed by more securely fastening the pediment and the rest of the portico to the main building.
Grateful thanks to John O’Hagan for his time and enthusiasm. Thanks also to the Ashton Wylie Charitable Trust which owns the building, and to Paula King, who made it possible for us to go and see it. We’ll stay in touch with this project as it progresses.
I’m going to work for Salmond Reed over the summer. Knowing that I love to have a dekko at an old building with the covers off, Tracey Hartley from SR very kindly invited me along to a site visit she was making to the Pitt St Buildings. A brief post, then, to share with you a couple of details from the project.
The main aim of the work at Pitt St is to replace the roofs and restrain the parapets. The parapets are large, ornate and slender. They needed thorough bracing, but that bracing had to be as unobtrusive as possible. The original design was a conventional diagonal bracing approach, but that was too obvious from the street and created future roof maintenance problems. Following close collaboration between the architects and the engineer, a design was developed that not only met the seismic strengthening requirements but also was acceptable aesthetically for this important 5th elevation of the building. Most of the braces and their triangulated members have been tucked under the roofs and exposed steelwork minimised to the gables. At the bottom left edge of the picture above you can see a hatch—I ducked though it to have a look at the rest of the brace.
Draining the pool
Designing efficient water run off is part of Tracey’s expertise. She’s developed an instinct for understanding how water flows through and over a structure. My photograph below doesn’t show quite the right angle, but Tracey explained that she’d advised on the design of the connections between the bracing and the parapet, to avoid potential water traps. For example, the C-section channels that run horizontally are packed out slightly from the wall, allowing water to run behind them without getting trapped.
On our way to look at another part of the roof, we passed by a beautiful piece of crafting—a welded-lead cap connecting the new stainless-steel gutter with the existing downpipes. This nifty improvisation is the work of Chris the artisan plumber.
Moving to the Pitt St/K Road corner of the building, we inspected the timber and steel components of the new roof. The roof has been altered from its original profile: it now has a central gutter, instead of sloping right down to the back of the parapet. Keeping the water away from the brickwork protects better against intrusion.
The repositioning of the gutter at this corner section also serves a structural purpose: the short rafter members that go from the gutter to the parapet are also tying the parapet back to the steel beam that runs around the corner section. The timber running along just below the top of the parapet is fastened into the brick. As you know, attentive reader, this kind of heritage-structure win-win design is catnip for me.
All the water on that roof has to go somewhere. In this case, the gutter leads to a smallish aperture in the rear gable wall called a corner sump outlet. Tracey wanted to make sure that the water would pass through the outlet, visible in the picture below, without backing up, overspilling, getting behind the lead flashings (the grey step-shapes on the right) or exerting too much pressure on the outer wall.
In the end, the solution she devised with Adam the project architect and René the contractor was to increase the fall somewhat, and form a stainless-steel sump box before the hole. The increased fall makes the choke-point a bit larger, and the tank protects the surrounding fabric if water backs up at this point. This is the kind of on-the-fly rethinking that takes decades of experience to spot and to remedy. The author (somewhat uncharacteristically) kept his trap firmly shut.
Passing around the corner to the Pitt St side of the building, we saw more re-roofing and parapet work. There was no angle to photograph it from, but it was possible to peek under the bottom of the timber roof sarkings that you see in the photo above. Underneath were more steel parapet braces—these ones appeared to be long straight members, concealed entirely under the roofs. They have to be long because they can only rise at a shallow angle under the small roof spaces. As at the corner section, these braces connect to a longitudinal beam.
Tracey, Adam and Chris worked on a plan to connect the gutters of the new roofs to the existing Colorsteel™ gutters on the parts of the building that sit behind this section—to the right, in the picture. They settled on a plan that involved joining the new stainless steel and the old Colorsteel™ on the vertical section of a step (the riser, as it were), as opposed to joining it on the flat, where water could pool at the joint. The plan also involved overlapping new and old materials for some distance below the joint. Pernicious stuff, rainwater.
Do have a look next time you’re going along K Road. The project is also going to involve repairing the awning—Heritage Society regulars will remember both Peter Boardman and Jason Ingham talking about how strong awnings protect passers-by from falling parapets. Hopefully, the newly-strengthened parapet won’t tumble, but if it did, you’d be grateful that the ties were in better nick than this.
Thanks very much to Tracey, René, Chris, and Adam for letting me have a look. More soon—two site visits coming up in the next two weeks. Registration links at the top of the page if you’re keen.