Albert Park Keeper’s Cottage with Dave Olsen of Mitchell Vranjes and Egbert Koekoek of Cape

Your correspondent keeps a sharp eye out for old buildings under wraps. When one is spotted, this is usually followed by a spate of calls and emails requesting a site visit—what you might call (I hope!) a charm offensive. In the case of the Albert Park Keeper’s Cottage, it was almost as though the building was taunting me: for one thing, it’s right there at the University gates. And for another, it was rising into the air. Come and get me!

Albert Park Keeper’s Cottage. The Cottage has been jacked up off the ground to allow repiling work to take place. The Cottage is an 1882 timber structure, with brick piers supporting the floors and a brick chimney. One unusual feature of the building is its slate roof. The slates are an added mass high up on the structure, and have some effect on its predicted seismic behaviour.

A sign at the site explained that the building was undergoing seismic strengthening: and so, a few phone calls later, we went behind the fence to check out the project and how it was progressing. Guiding us were the project engineer Dave Olsen from Mitchell Vranjes (regular site visitors may remember him from the Melanesian Mission) and Egbert Koekoek from the construction contractors Cape.

Albert Park Keeper’s Cottage. Site visitors assemble to hear from Dave Olsen (left) about the project.

Going up

So, why was the house in the air? As with many older buildings, the basic problem is that the Cottage is not strong enough to resist horizontal loads. A structure can be fine holding up its own weight, but if it’s shoved sideways, it falls off its foundations, and that’d be that. One part of the project is to strengthen and renew the Cottage’s piles, and to brace it horizontally against loads from a future earthquake.

But buildings, especially old houses, are re-piled all the time, right? And they don’t get lifted into the air, do they? The reason for this gets at some of the differences between heritage jobs and regular engineering. In a conventional repiling, holes are cut in the floor, and those are used to dig out and place the new piles. At a heritage building, one of the first principles is to try to avoid damaging the original fabric, and to minimise any necessary damage. Rather than cut the floor to pieces, it was deemed better to lift the building—a technology more commonly associated with house removals.

Albert Park Keeper’s Cottage. Steel lifting beams support the Cottage off the ground. Note weatherboards have been removed to allow the beam to be inserted. As can clearly be seen, the beam is lifting from above the floor.

Lifting the building had other benefits. It gave enough headroom for the workers to install some larger timber piles, the deepest of which extend 900 mm below the surface. Further, because of the heritage-listed trees which surround the site, it was not permitted to use screw-piles, so workers (and the arborist!) had to be able to see where they were digging.

Albert Park Keeper’s Cottage. Lifting beams seen in the interior of the structure, photographed at the southern corner through a convenient gap. Note on the left the timber ribbon beam, which runs longitudinally through the building and is fastened to the studs.

How do you lift a house? I’d’ve imagined that this was done from the bearers, or maybe the joists. But it was plain to see that this was not the case at the Cottage. The orange steel beams running through the house are clearly above the floor level. Egbert Koekoek explained that the house lifters installed timber ribbon beams running the length of the cottage, which were attached to the studs. Weatherboards, and the internal timber lining boards (sarkings), were removed to allow the ribbon beams to attach directly to the studs. The orange steel lifting beams were inserted. Then, fourteen hydraulic jacks lifted the Cottage up into the air, a little at a time, over the course of a couple of hours. Each jack can be individually switched on and off, leading to a certain amount of racing around with a tape measure to make sure that everything’s lifting at the same rate!

Albert Park Keeper’s Cottage. Note the new timber (lighter colour) added either side of existing bearers. The line of brick piers below the bearer, still able to carry gravity loads but with no horizontal capacity, has been augmented and partly replaced by timber posts. Diagonal braces attach to new timber piles. At the right, a concrete block wall replaces bricks which have rotated outwards due to expansive soil.

With the house lifted in the air by its studs, it’s not safe to go inside, for fear that the floor might simply fall away under your feet. However, the raised house also provided the opportunity to strengthen the bearers. The need for strengthening is in part due to the new use of the building as public space, requiring a design for 3 kPa floor loads. This has been done by adding timber either side of the existing bearer—once again, unconventional practice, but in keeping with the heritage principle of retaining original material.

Albert Park Keeper’s Cottage. The original perimeter bricks are largely being retained and reintegrated into the load-bearing system.

At ground level

Geotechnical testing of the site revealed that the soil is expansive, meaning that it shrinks and swells a lot. Perhaps as a result of this, some of the original perimeter brickwork under the walls has moved around quite a lot over time. On the park side of the house, the wall had rotated about ten degrees, and had to be replaced with a concrete block wall. (The concrete will be faced with brick so that it looks much the same as the original.)

With some new perimeter walls, and with sturdy timber diagonal brace piles taking effect, the underfloor of the Cottage is now going to be fairly stiff. A site visitor asked about stiffness compatibility between the underfloor and the timber structure of the house, which can be expected to be pretty floppy by comparison to its supports. The answer to this came in several forms, if I’ve understood it correctly!

In part, the Cottage itself is getting some increased stiffness. The sarking on the internal walls is going to be renailed in a number of places, making the internal boxes of the rooms considerably firmer. The front room, in the northeastern corner, contains the chimney, about which more later. It requires extra horizontal bracing to restrain the brickwork, so a brace Gib is being added over the sarking. (The ceiling of that room gets an enhanced diaphragm, too.) But, in the main, the answer to questions of stiffness compatibility between structure and substructure is this: it doesn’t matter. The Cottage isn’t overly large. And the inherent flexibility of the timber makes it unlikely to transfer loads very far across the structure, meaning that deflections at the interface between floors and piles shouldn’t be too much for the connections to handle.

Albert Park Keeper’s Cottage. The fireplace and chimney were (naturally) not lifted with the rest of the building. The connections between chimney and structure had to be carefully broken away to allow the house to be lifted

Catching the flue

In the seismic assessment of the Cottage, the chimney was identified as the weakest link, scoring around 15% NBS. Think of the chimney as a freestanding pile of bricks. It’s supported on its foundation, and again at the ceiling level. Then there is a decent length of chimney between the ceiling and the roof, and still more again where the chimneystack protrudes into the sky. So what we have is a long brick column, with a point of restraint at the base, another at the ceiling, and a long unrestrained section above the ceiling. It’s this top section, above the ceiling, that needs extra support. In a quake, it could rock itself right off the rest of the flue, causing collapse.

Albert Park Keeper’s Cottage. A section showing the props bracing the chimney. Sturdy connections are made to the rafters. A plywood diaphragm at ceiling level increases the stiffness of the ceiling restraint. Image courtesy Dave Olsen/Mitchell Vranjes, all rights reserved.

The solution that Dave has chosen is to use timber props, creating a collar around the chimney just below the height of the roof. This creates a firm diagonal bracing for the chimney, meaning that the unrestrained section will be restrained at approximately half height. By changing the unsupported length, the period of the rocking motion expected in the chimney changes, and the resulting forces experienced by the chimney are reduced. In accordance with the NZSEE guidelines, the mortar of the chimney-bricks is assumed to have basically no tensile strength. In a quake, the chimney is expected to form cracks, breaking at predictable points into short but intact sections which will rock but not topple.

With the limited clearance beneath the Cottage’s floors, smaller workers are preferred

Local gossip

A couple more newsworthy points to share with you. Regular visitors to Albert Park will have noticed that the Band Rotunda is also under wraps. Egbert explained that, although there’s plenty to do at the Rotunda, there’s nothing structural happening: the job is mostly maintenance and repair. He also shared a few things about the work that’s been happening at Pembridge House, which is the southernmost Merchant House in the lineup along Princes St. I did make an attempt to get a site visit to Pembridge up and running, but it was too complex because the floor was taken up for a lot of the time and the site was hazardous. (Hazardous = interesting, though, doesn’t it!) A major feature of the job, structurally, was the insertion of two big two-storey steel K braces in the stairwell, which were then concealed. Nothing to see now, folks! Never mind: other opportunities will surely arise.


Sincere thanks to several people for helping to organise this one. We put this together against time pressure, with the Cottage due to be lowered early next week. A number of people set aside other (real) work to make this happen for us, including Richard Bland, Antony Matthews, and Stacy Vallis. Thanks to Auckland Council. We’re also most grateful to Dave Olsen and Egbert Koekoek for their time and their willingness to answer questions and discuss the project.


University of Auckland heritage buildings with Neil Buller and Peter Boardman, March 2017

Yesterday a large group defied the weather forecast and enjoyed a tour of several of the University’s heritage buildings.

Neil Buller, architect and project manager for the UoA, battles a sore throat and traffic noise, talking to the crowd about 10 Grafton Road.
Neil Buller, architect and project manager for the UoA, battles a sore throat and traffic noise, talking to the crowd about 10 Grafton Road.

For me, the recurring theme of the afternoon was the University’s special nature as a client. It’s unusual to have a client whose heritage properties span such a range of ages, styles, and typologies. The University’s buildings mostly have high levels of occupancy and usage, making it more critical that they be demonstrably safe and sound. And the University also has a kaitiakitanga role and a concern for preserving its history. For all these reasons and more, the University seems to take a more scrupulous position about how much retrofit it is prepared to do. The projects we saw were targeting 100% of the New Building Standard (NBS), which is a higher target than many clients choose to set.

It’s also a target that necessitates more physical intervention. Some of the conversation on the tour turned around questions of the practice of making these interventions visible, of leaving good records of work done, of reversibility, and of the suitability or otherwise of certain building technologies for heritage sites. Sometimes repairs can bring problems with them, if, for example, they bring moisture where it’s not wanted. We also heard a familiar story about working on heritage buildings–starting to fix one problem leads to finding several more!
Neil describes the proposed post-tensioning system for the Clock Tower Annexe, where work is due to start in October 2017.
Neil describes the proposed post-tensioning system for the Clock Tower Annexe, where work is due to start in October 2017.
I enjoyed the opportunity to hear and see some details about the specific problems heritage buildings experience, and how these are addressed. At Bayreuth (the 1903 Italianate building at 10 Grafton Road), tie rods have been inserted both parallel and perpendicular to the floor joists, binding the structure together. The brick and concrete Merchant Houses Belgrave, Okareta and Mona (12-16 Symonds St), dating from the 1880s, were suffering from water intrusion, and required structural improvement. The basement slab was relaid, with a ventilation system designed to improve airflow and remove moisture. Floors were taken up, the joists re-fixed to the walls, tongue-and-groove floorboards re-laid, plywood diaphragms used to stiffen the structure. Roof timbers were refreshed. All in all, a major refit, and one that necessitates tradeoffs between the future of the building as a whole and the integrity of its heritage fabric.
Crossing the road, we saw an elegant intervention at the General Library, where the services and stairwell were too stiff and inflexible in comparison to the abutting structure. In a decent shake, they’d likely knock the rest of the building to pieces. The solution proved to be “strengthening through de-strengthening”, in that vertical saw-cuts were used to weaken the walls, while the structural members of stairwell and library were tied together. There was an interesting conversation about the value of taking the time to allow designs to be re-thought. In this project, the initial design proposed masses of steel, strapping the disparate parts of the structure together. The final solution proved to be far more minimal, essentially a steel rod lashing elements together across the stairwell, forming a lattice. A conference panel on Alistair Cattanach of Dunning Thornton’s design for the library, with some photos, drawings, and some more information, can be found here.
After the tour, we moved inside to examine drawings and photographs. Above my not-so-hot picture of the design for the Library. Look up, next time you're on Alfred St!
After the tour, we moved inside to examine drawings and photographs. Above my not-so-hot picture of the design for the Library. Look up, next time you’re on Alfred St!
Lastly, we looked at the Annexe to the Clock Tower (aka the Old Arts Building), built in the 1920s. Peter Boardman, of Structure Design, who accompanied the tour, was responsible for the highly effective post-tensioning system on the Christchurch Arts Centre, which saved it from major damage. If you’re not familiar with the Christchurch project, imagine a netting of steel cables wound around the outside of a stone building and tightened! The Clock Tower Annexe is getting a more high-tech version of this treatment, where steel rods are being inserted through the major structural members of the building. The Annexe is made from concrete faced with stone, and the steel rods, once tightened, will add some very necessary tensile strength to the building.
I’ll finish by mentioning that in response to a question from the audience about the most important lessons from the Christchurch quakes, the presenters agreed that the biggest lesson was this: doing something is better than doing nothing. Buildings which had been strengthened, even those with ad hoc solutions, survived better than those which had not. Peter suggested, as an example, that shoring up verandahs at a cost of a few thousand is often a way to reduce stresses throughout the structure, and provide protection from falling decorative elements. The two presenters also reinforced the importance of communication and compromise between members of allied professions (like architecture and engineering), and I’m sure you will all concur with this sentiment. We’re very grateful to Neil Buller and Peter Boardman for their generosity, frankness, and expertise.