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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.