St Paul’s Methodist Church, Remuera, with Josiah Campbell and Richard Newman

From St Paul’s Church in Symonds St to St Paul’s Methodist Church in Remuera—22 minutes by number 75 bus. Like the Anglican St Paul’s (which we visited in March), the Methodist St Paul’s is undergoing seismic strengthening designed by EQ STRUC. The construction phase is well underway, and we were able to see some of the structural enhancements being installed. Josiah Campbell of EQ STRUC led the tour, and we were fortunate to be accompanied by Richard Newman from the contractors Aspec.

St Paul’s Methodist Church, Remuera. Point cloud model. Image courtesy EQ STRUC, all rights reserved.

St Paul’s Methodist Church is a Gothic revival brick building, designed by E. A. Pearce and completed in 1922. That puts it close to another site we’ve visited this year, the University’s ClockTower, which also dates from the ‘twenties and finds its stylistic roots in the Gothic. St Paul’s is a handsome building, with a reserved, dignified aspect from the street. It doesn’t contain the kind of flights of fancy that you’ll see at the ClockTower, but we were able to appreciate the craft and the sense of proportion that went into its design and construction.

And we were also able to see the kind of weaknesses that afflict buildings of this age and type. Reflecting on the visit, it occurs to me that the building contained examples of many of the kinds of problems—and solutions—that we’ve seen in our travels. In this post, I’ll try to give a sense of the structural solution (as I understood it) and also illustrate a few of the interesting details along the way.

St Paul’s Methodist Church. Site plan with structural additions at roof level highlighted. Note at the right the concrete-core shear wall, a later addition to the building. Image courtesy EQ STRUC, all rights reserved.

Not plane sailing

As with the ClockTower, St Paul’s Church, and other large masonry structures, a key issue at play in assessing and strengthening St Paul’s Methodist Church is the in-plane and out-of-plane capacity of the walls. (In-plane means pushing along the length of the wall, out-of-plane is pushing across the wall.) St Paul’s walls are relatively thick and sturdy—up to 410mm in places and thicker at the buttresses—and neither dizzyingly tall nor riddled with fenestration, so they are pretty good in-plane. Where the walls are less robust is out-of-plane, and a good deal of this weakness comes down to the way that connections were originally made between the walls and the roof.

Structures resist in-plane loads by transferring them to walls that lie parallel to the incoming forces. That’s a fancy way of saying that a box is stronger than four playing cards leaning against each other. At St Paul’s, the structural intervention is designed to connect the parts of the church together and to transfer loads to the parts of the building that are best placed to resist them. The new structure provides some additional strength, but its most important job is to allow the efficient  use of the existing strength of the building.

St Paul’s Methodist Church. A view of the top of the rear wall, brick veneer with concrete core. The diagonal white line running through the picture marks the position of the ceiling linings, which will be reinstated. This allows the steel PFC at the top of the picture to be installed, as it will be concealed by the ceiling. In other, visible parts of the building, a less obtrusive (and more expensive!) approach has been taken.

As it happens, there are some pieces of the church that are going to come in handy for just that reason. Most buildings that stick around for a few decades will have been modified in that time. In the case of St Paul’s Methodist Church, an extension project in the 1960s saw a concrete wall installed at the rear of the church, replacing the original wall. This newer concrete wall is hidden by brick, but there are construction drawings which give details of its dimensions and specified reinforcement. Josiah has supplemented the drawings with a GPR scan of the wall: the radar gives good indication of the reinforcement bar spacings, and from there it’s possible to drill to determine the bar diametersor in this case, the figures are on the drawings.

St Paul’s Methodist Church. A view of the original timber ceiling truss (which runs across the building) and the newly-inserted eaves truss, running longitudinally. The large metal attachment on the Reid bar is a “banana” clip, designed to allow the bar to be tensioned. The timber member running parallel to the white RHS is one of the underpurlins mentioned in the plan above.

The helpful part of all this is that the concrete wall’s capacity can be calculated, and it serves as a strong point from which to support other elements of the building. From this wall at the rear of the church, two eaves trusses are being installed along the long axis of the building. The trusses, made up of criss-crossed Reid bars and shortish lengths of RHS, connect the front and back walls together. This new metalwork also connects to the original timber trusses which run across the church, binding them into position. The front or street wall of the church is thus being given support by the other walls. The strength the eaves trusses provide to the gable end is being augmented with some steel wall braces that run across the face of the wall. In addition, the design uses the strength of some of the existing timber underpurlins.

St Paul’s Methodist Church. Connection between top of wall, timber ceiling truss, and eaves truss. The flat section of grey beneath the ceiling truss is the padstone (see below). This has been augmented by the addition of a bond beam (the concrete step at the right edge of the picture). The bond beam sits on top of the existing brick wall and is connected into the joint by a steel leg.

Looking across the building, quite a bit is being done to support the two long walls. As I mentioned above, the 1960s additions to the building have good drawings, and the engineers also found drawings made for the original construction. Anecdotally, I’m aware that the existence of original drawings is far from being a given when you’re working with older buildings. But even the designer’s drawings can only tell you so much. For example, the 1920s drawing set included a section across the building at the point where the timber roof trusses meet the top of wall. The drawing showed a solid unit—not a brick—underneath the bottom of the timber truss. Great, thought the engineers. There’s a bond beam. (A bond beam is a member that runs along the top of a masonry wall, and helps to transfer loads.)

However, when the work began in earnest, the ‘bond beam’ proved only to be a padstone, a short section of stone or concrete used to spread out the point load from the bottom of the truss onto a wider section of the brick wall. As with so many heritage projects, improvisation and redesign-on-the-fly was required, in this case taking the form of a series of bond beams cast in situ and connected to the truss system with embedded steel legs.

St Paul’s Methodist Church. Having come down from the internal scaffolding, site visitors inspect the placement of Helifix ties. The ties are being used in both horizontal directions: through the wall, to connect the brick wythes of the cavity wall together more securely, and also along the wall, to stitch cracks, especially around openings.

When describing this problem and its remedy, Josiah made an observation that I hadn’t heard before, which struck me as valuable wisdom. He wanted to avoid taking any of the old material away, he said. This was not for reasons of heritage best-practicealthough he’s certainly keenly aware of that, and earlier he had talked about how decisions have to be made about every scrap of original fabric that’s removed, from leaky roof vents to crumbling lintels. But the point that Josiah was making was that there are internal forces in play inside the existing pieces of the structure. Removing them comes at a risk. If you take things away, the internal forces will realign themselves, seeking equilibrium. If it’s not done carefully, unexpected movements or even failures could occur.

St Paul’s Methodist Church. Elevation looking from inside the church towards the road. Note the cross-bracing for the steelwork in the tower does not extend to the ground (see below). The wall braces are connected to the new internal trusses. Image courtesy EQ STRUC, all rights reserved.

You can see that it’s important to have the whole system of the building in your mind. Another example of this kind of thinking is to be found in the single new truss that spans transversally across the building. It’s being installed at the front end of the church. Notionally, says Josiah, you’d like to have it in the middle, to bridge the centres of the two long walls. But the choice to shift it to the front is part of a more holistic structural plan. Located at the front, the truss can provide connections and support for the parapet brace that’s needed in the porch, and connect to the steelwork that’s going into the tower.

St Paul’s Methodist Church. The roof is being retiled.
St Paul’s Methodist Church. A close-up view of the windows on the street side of the church, taken on the climb to the top of the tower.

Going up

At the time that we visited, we couldn’t get into the tower, but we did have the pleasure of climbing right up to the top of it from the outside. Because of the nature of towers—tall and waggly—I think it’d be fair to say that the inserted steel structure is being called on to do a bigger share of the work in the tower than it is in the main body of the church, where the design is more about using the strength of existing materials. Inside the tower, a braced frame will climb up the interior—Richard tells us it just fits. At the bottom, though, it wouldn’t be acceptable for the steelwork to block out the corner of the church, so the lowest storey of the frame—about three metres in height—has no diagonal braces. Instead, the four legs at the corners of the braced frame plunge down into a pretty hefty block of concrete, which will hold them steady.

St Paul’s Methodist Church. A concrete lintel above one of the windows was badly damaged and needed to be removed. The use of beach sand in the original concrete led to corrosion in the reinforcing steel, and the expansion caused the concrete to crack. Care needed to be taken in the removal, as it was in a delicate state. A good view here of the cavity construction of the wall. The two wythes of brick (three wythes lower down) are separated by an air gap, to keep moisture from getting inside. This can weaken the wall, but St Paul’s is not a severe case of this. Helifix ties are being used in places to connect the walls across the cavity. Image courtesy EQ STRUC, all rights reserved.
St Paul’s Methodist Church. A new lintel replaces the one above.

Climbing the tower, we got a better chance to appreciate the beauty of the church. I’d been clued in to the charm of St Paul’s Methodist by the intricacy of the timber ceiling trusses, but from the outside, we could also see the lovely slenderness of the windows with their stylish blue stripe. We saw a repaired lintel, sign of a common problem with 1920s concrete— the use of beach sand in the original mix, causing the reinforcing steel to corrode and expand.

St Paul’s Methodist Church. A site visitor inspects the top of the tower, where original lead has been removed and will be replaced. The round knobs cover fixings, as can be seen at the bottom right of the picture.

One last surprise awaited us at the top of the tower—or awaited me, I should say. I’d never seen a lead roof, at least not up close like this. It’s being re-leaded to prevent leaking, but the original round fixing-covers are going back on. They added a little hint of rococo to the Gothic, I thought. With knobs on, isn’t that the phrase?

Thanks!

It’s always a privilege to get to visit an active worksite, and we know that we are stopping real work getting done and taking up the valuable time of our guides. It makes a big difference to us—thank you for helping us to build up our experience and knowledge. Many thanks to Josiah Campbell for finding the time for this visit and for slides and for taking all our questions in his stride. Many thanks also to Richard Newman for his generous use of time for our visit. Both of these guys’ passion for the building and for the work they do was evident. Thanks also to David from the church for the background information and for permission to visit.

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.

Thanks!

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.