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.

City Rail Link with Andrew Swan and Chris Bird

This will be a shorter post, as I am busy with study at the moment! Today we visited the City Rail Link works, looking at the cut-and-cover tunnel operation on Albert St and the ongoing work inside the Britomart Central Post Office. Our guides were Andrew Swan and Chris Bird from the City Rail Link team, who told us a little about the heritage aspects of the CRL project. We focused on the building monitoring on Albert St and the engineering work which has been done to support the CPO building while the rail tunnels are extended underneath it.

We started with a briefing from Andrew Swan, but I’m going to assume that you’re more or less familiar with the City Rail Link project, which extends the rail network up from the bottom of Queen St to Karangahape Road and then to Mt Eden. (A number of the site visits we’ve done in the past have explicitly addressed the CRL.) If you don’t know much about it, there’s a ton of info at the CRL site, and even for the well-informed, I’d highly recommend a skim through the construction blog which has loads of pictures and is updated frequently.

One facet of the heritage side that had escaped my attention until now is that the Central Post Office building is protected not just by its Category 1 status by by a Deed of Heritage Covenant, which makes it an offence to modify the building without consent. All the work that is happening at the CPO building—and there’s a lot—has been negotiated with Heritage NZ and explicitly permitted.

City Rail Link, Albert St. A monitoring total station swings around, ranging the prisms in its zone.

Hold it right there

Briefed, we headed out to site. My group began on Albert St, where a network of monitoring total stations is taking readings from a myriad of prisms every fifteen minutes.  The prisms, or reflectors, are sited along the route of the tunnel, on pavements, building facades, walls, and so on. As the work goes on, each prism is allowed to move a certain amount. If it moves any more than its pre-assigned tolerance, an alert is sounded, and the CRL team decide what needs to be done—which in extreme circumstances might include stopping the works.

City Rail Link, Albert St. A reflecting prism in place outside Link House, under the watchful eye of the total station.

I asked how the allowable deflections were set, and Chris Bird explained that this was done by consultants through geotechnical modelling and an assessment of the probable effects of the excavation on the surrounding buildings. It’s a case-by-case process, which depends upon the soil conditions at each site, building foundation type, the building’s structure, and so on. There are a range of sensitive buildings along the route, including (next to the CPO building) the Endeans Building, which still is founded on its original kauri piles.

City Rail Link, Albert St. Looking up at Link House, directly above the prism in the previous picture.

Movement monitoring continues inside the buildings themselves, which were surveyed before the excavation began. If significant pre-existing cracks were found, these were fitted with a gauge, allowing a determination of whether the works are causing any further damage. So far, deflections all along the tunnel path are well within the permitted limits.

City Rail Link, Britomart/Central Post Office. A view along one line of underpinning beams transferring load from columns. Image copyright the author. This image may not be reproduced or shared without permission from the City Rail Link.

How to lift a building by one millimetre

And so to the Central Post Office building. As you know, the major work here is to extend the train tunnels to allow trains to run both ways through Britomart Station. The problem is, the tunnels go right under a good many of the columns that hold up the building. To allow the tunnels to be dug, the loads that are coming down the columns need to be transferred out to either side of the hole, and from there down into something nice and solid.

When we visited the project last, in October 2017, the team were working on creating diaphragm walls, using a special drilling rig affectionately known as Sandrine. These walls are sturdy concrete structures, extending along the edges of the Central Post Office building, and inside the building along the edges of where the tunnels will be dug. With the diaphragm walls in place, the CRL team have put in large steel members to serve as underpinning beams. These underpinning beams span across the tops of the diaphragm walls.

The underpinning beams are there to take the weight of the columns of the CPO building. The load has to be carefully transferred from what’s supporting the columns now (the existing foundations) to the underpinning beams. This process is carried out as follows.

City Rail Link, Britomart/Central Post Office. Detail of the load transfer system. The upper red steel box is the collar. Beneath the collar are the four flat-jacks. Short members span the paired underpinning beams. Image copyright the author. This image may not be reproduced or shared without permission from the City Rail Link.

First, the concrete is chipped off from the columns, exposing the original steelwork. A collar is then clamped around the column, and the collar sits across a pair of underpinning beams. The beams aren’t taking any load yet. To transfer the load, four tiny flat-jacks are placed beneath the collar. Using hydraulic fluid pumped to 290 bar inside copper coils, the jacks lift the collars—and the columns—ever so slightly. Half a millimeter—at most a whole millimetre—but no more. They lift until they reach a given displacement or a given force, equivalent to the calculated load in the column. With the jacks in place,  lifted and shimmed, the load from the column is now being taken by the underpinning beams, and from there across and down into the diaphragm walls and into the bedrock. Then the column base, which is no longer bearing the load, can be cut away. (In this animation of the process, you can see the diaphragm walls in light grey and the underpinning beams and collars in red.)

City Rail Link, Britomart/Central Post Office. The CPO building was seismically strengthened in 2002. A recent review of the 2002 work has found that it is still adequate in a post-Christchurch era. In the blue box, one of the shear walls (?) inserted into the structure in the 2002 retrofit. Image copyright the author. This image may not be reproduced or shared without permission from the City Rail Link.

The other major part of the structures that needs support while the tunnels are being dug are the walls, in particular the East and West walls. These are the walls which lie above the tunnels.  The West wall is the Queen Street side, the grand facade of the building. To allow it to span the tunnels without cracking, the team have created two immense post-tensioned concrete beams, one inside and one outside the wall. The beams are tied together with cross members, which run underneath the wall itself. The beams have been cast and tensioned in situ, and Andrew recounted that they were complex to construct and design. On the day that we visited, some work was happening to set up the steel reinforcement for one end of the beams which will do the same work on the Eastern wall.

Parish news

A final note. Andrew mentioned the recent news stories about decision-makers looking to expand the capacity of the new stations on the CRL line, Aotea and Karangahape. I asked about the impact of this on the Pitt St Methodist Church, the Mercury Theatre, and maybe on our friends at Hopetoun Alpha. Andrew’s take was that the plans for bigger stations, if adopted, would be good for the Pitt St Church, since there would be no need for the large ventilation structure which is proposed to be placed just outside the Church. Instead, the second entrance in Beresford Square would provide ventilation for the station. Interesting to see how this all develops.

Thanks!

Warm and very sincere thanks to Andrew Swan, Chris Bird, Sonya Leahy, and Berenize Peita for their time and their willingness to share knowledge and answer questions. With special thanks also to Clare Farrant for organising the tour, and to the indefatigable Jenny Chu.

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.

 

Christchurch Arts Centre, with Owain Scullion of Holmes Consulting

In memoriam

As with earlier posts about Christchurch, the post following is written with  respect and sympathy for the victims of the quake sequence and for their families. As students who want to work with heritage buildings, we can learn from Christchurch and be part of doing better. Ka mate te kāinga tahi, ka ora te kāinga rua. HT

Christchurch Arts Centre, tower restored by stonemasons.

What I did on my holidays

With exams out of the way, I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to go down to Christchurch and have a look at the reconstruction and strengthening work taking place at the Christchurch Arts Centre. The Arts Centre is a cluster of historic buildings, the majority of which made up the original campus of the University of Canterbury. It’s a closely-spaced collection of good-sized masonry structures, dating from the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th: more or less the exact kind of buildings that copped a fair hiding in the Canterbury earthquake sequence. A ~$300 million, multi-year programme is restoring and strengthening the buildings in the complex.

Christchurch Arts Centre, Girls’ High entrance. A Corinthian column is cased for protection during the building works.

I had the great pleasure of going through the site with Owain Scullion of Holmes Consulting. Owain patiently explained the strengthening programme to me, and showed me the current state of the works. What I thought I’d do, for the audience of this blog (who are mostly clustered up here on Pig Island) is talk about a few of the technical details that I was able to see, and try to give an impression of how the work is proceeding. I can hardly claim to be comprehensive, but I’d like to give a snapshot of what I saw. There’s a site map here to see where the buildings are as I refer to them; scroll down a bit on the linked page to find it.

Christchurch Arts Centre, Chemistry building. Horizontal and vertical stainless steel cables are connected to the structure through junction boxes, enhancing the compression in the wall caused by gravity loads to ensure that the wall stays in overall compression during shaking.

A stitch in time

Buildings at the Arts Centre had been strengthened before the quakes began. (Holmes’ involvement with the Arts Centre stretches back well before the 2010 quake.[update]) Regular attendees of Heritage Now events may remember Peter Boardman talking about his involvement with applying post-tensioning to the Chemistry building at the Arts Centre, which happened in the 1980s. As Peter told us, there was controversy over the appearance of the post-tensioning, which takes the form of a visible network of cables wrapped around the building. But what is undeniable is that the system largely preserved the Chemistry block during the quakes, despite the collapse of the building’s (unstrengthened) tower. As a measure of the post-tensioning system’s success, it has been renewed and reinstated, this time using stainless steel cables. (For more about how the post-tensioning cable system performed, you might like to read Dmytro Dizhur (et al)’s paper from 2013, which also talks about the post-tensioning of College Hall at the Arts Centre. TL;DR: it worked bloody well, and had some fringe benefits like increased out-of-plane capacity that weren’t predicted by the retrofit designers.)

Christchurch Arts Centre, Chemistry building. The post-tensioning terminates at steel plates. Note the cable entering the structure on the right to travel along the inside face of the wall. The stone buttresses to which the plate is attached were the original design mechanism to resist out-of-place forces in the gable end walls, but unfortunately their capacity to do so is insufficient.
Christchurch Arts Centre, Girls’ High, pre-quake tension brace retrofit, attaching to gable end. Note valley beam at springing of arches.

Not all of the pre-quake work was suitable for unmodified reinstatement. However, I did see examples of earlier retrofits being integrated into the new strengthening systems. For example, in the Girls’ High building, a system of tension braces had been installed to restrain the gable end and to transfer loads towards the core of the building. In the 2010-11 quakes, the loads were transferred pretty successfully, but in doing so, the valley beam at the base of the tension braces pushed on an internal wall, moving it by 50mm. This internal wall is now being beefed up and stiffened to drag loads out of several surrounding rooms.

Christchurch Arts Centre, Girls’ High. A brick internal wall is being strengthened to collate loads from adjoining rooms.

As an aside, Owain mentioned that a fringe benefit of working on these unique structures is that you get to see examples of fine nineteenth-century crafting. In the Girls’ High building, tusk tenons connect the floor joists to the beams, a detail that points to the relative cost of fasteners vs. workmen’s time in the early days of the NZ construction industry!

Christchurch Arts Centre, Girls’ High. A profusion of materials require strengths to be assumed or determined: timber sarking; bricks and mortar; timber beams; steel tension braces (upper left), plus masonry walls (not shown).

The right ANSR?

Owain explained that it has been important for Holmes to test the properties of the materials at the site—particularly for critical structural elements. For example, the internal wall mentioned above that’s aggregating loads has been subjected to pull-out testing to determine the cohesion value of its mortar, in a process analogous to the bed joint shear tests I’ve written about on this blog. The testing allows the engineers to close the loop on their modelling.  Having made assumptions about the material properties of the elements, the engineers model the structures in a software package called ANSR. Using data recorded in the last few decades of earthquakes around the globe, the engineers subject the model to a succession of simulated earthquakes. This modelling identifies structural hot-spots that need to be addressed. Materials testing allows the team to to be satisfied that their underlying assumptions are valid and that they can therefore trust the results of the modelling.

Christchurch Arts Centre, Girls’ High. First floor interior, showing lower edge of timber ceiling trusses with hammerbeam-style half-arches. Hidden structural steelwork supports the gable end.

Variations on a theme

For an all-too-brief moment, I got to put my steelies on and go up the scaffolding, even if I did have to wear the hard-hat-of-shame marked Visitor. At the top of the walls of block DA, aka Girls’ High, below a steeply-pitched roof, some supplementary structural steel has been inserted. The frames support the gable end, and diagonal braces lead down to a PFC that runs along the top of the wall. (Jargon alert! PFC = “parallel flange channel”, eg a C-shaped section.)

Christchurch Arts Centre, Girls’ High. Taken from the scaffold outside the room in previous picture. Note the PFC running along the top of the wall, and at left the diagonal brace heading towards the gable end. The thicker timber beams at the left are the upper chord of the trusses shown in the previous picture.

At the time I visited, the workers were setting up to drill some three-metre holes horizontally down through the wall. My first thought was that what I was looking at was similar to what’s being done at the University of Auckland’s ClockTower Annexe, where a series of drilled holes accommodate rods that are putting the entire wall into compression. I was wrong. In fact, here the drilling was to allow for Macalloy bars to be inserted, which will hold down the PFC securely and hence restrain the gable end against excessive rocking. The three metre length of the drill holes won’t get them to ground level—it’s just to allow the Macalloy bars enough space to develop good friction. Plenty of length is needed, because the drillholes tend to be smooth, meaning that the grout or epoxy that holds the bars in place doesn’t get a very strong bond to the walls of the hole.

Christchurch Arts Centre, Girls’ High. In a ground-floor room, a concrete core has been created and attached to the existing masonry. This necessitates building up and moulding window reveals. Dowels secure the concrete core to the masonry.

In another part of the building, however, there was a remediation technique being used that’s closer to what’s happening at the ClockTower. (Incidentally, although the ClockTower is about 50 years younger than the Girls’ High building, the coursing of the masonry is similar.) A ground floor space is being converted into a movie theatre, and shotcrete has been used to create a concrete core inside the masonry. This concrete core is connected to the exterior material by a closely-space system of dowels, similar to the Helifix screws that are being used at the ClockTower. (At the ClockTower the concrete core was part of the original design.)

Christchurch Arts Centre, Great Hall

The great Great Hall

One of the best things about the site visits we’ve done is getting to see some of the unique and remarkable interiors of heritage buildings. (St Matthew-in-the-City is a standout example for me.) While I’m sure that College Hall aka the Great Hall at the Arts Centre is well known to many people, it was a complete (and stunning) surprise to me. It’s an incredible interior: ornate, stately, and imposing. My first reaction was that I’d never seen anything like it in New Zealand; but then, as I looked more closely, I realised that it reminded me a little of St Paul’s Church on Symonds St which we visited earlier this year.

Christchurch Arts Centre, Great Hall. Successive layers of materials. The piers contain concrete cantilevers and post-tensioning systems.

There’s a roundabout connection to be made between the two buildings, in that Benjamin Mountfort, who designed the Great Hall, also worked on  ChristChurch Cathedral, to which St Paul’s Church has been compared by Heritage NZ. That part I’ll confess I looked up: what spoke to me immediately, though, was the palette of materials and the hierarchy of how they were deployed. At the Great Hall, moving horizontally upwards, timber panelling gives way to fine red bricks, then to Oamaru stone, then timber hammer beams and a a patterned timber ceiling. St Paul’s follows a similar pattern of material proportions and transitions. Gothic Revival, innit? One day St Paul’s will look as stunning as the Great Hall does.

At the Great Hall, the strengthening has involved inserting concrete cantilever columns inside the piers of the long side walls, enhancing the in-plane and out-of-plane capacity of the walls. Post-tensioning was also re-installed and enhanced. I suspect that the much larger ground accelerations expected in Christchurch compared to Auckland meant that a rocking-pier model that EQ STRUC proposed for St Paul’s wouldn’t have worked for the Great Hall—and, of course, the site topography’s different.

(Here’s an interesting article on Newsroom about the work at the Great Hall and the UNESCO prize it won, including a few images.)

Christchurch Arts Centre, Engineering building. Note missing gable end, steel wire strapping, vertical cracks through masonry.

Next up

Once the Girls’ High work is complete, the works will move on to the eastern end of the Engineering building, where extensive damage is still visible. A gable end is missing; there are deep vertical cracks in the masonry; and, in the building’s tower, the Oamaru stone quoins and the basalt wall have parted company. Steel ropes lash the structure together for temporary support. When works begin, tall steel buttresses will be attached to the walls, allowing the connections between walls and diaphragms to be cut and reinstated without triggering a collapse. Stonemasons are working to recreate the lost finials and many other decorative elements of the building, using archival photographs as visual references.

Christchurch Arts Centre, Engineering building. Steel buttress frames await re-use in supporting the structure. Cut off at bottom centre is the poster for the Teece exhibition.

A colossal amount of work has been done to restore the Arts Centre complex. While planning for the Engineering Building restoration is doubtless far advanced, I’m sure that lessons learned from working on the other buildings will be carried into the final part of the project, and will go on to inform strengthening and repair of similar buildings.

ChristChurch Cathedral

Christchurch

Walking around the city, it was sad and sobering to see the two hulks of the great churches standing unrestored, the Cathedral and the Basilica. The first sadness is for the human tragedy, certainly, but then you feel the loss of the buildings and the stories they contained.

Inside the Chemistry building at the Arts Centre, I spent time at a small exhibition in the Teece Museum which contained artefacts from Greek and Roman burial sites. One way of reading the objects in this collection was suggested by the inclusion of a Piranesi engraving, emphasising the splendour of decay and Romanticism of ruin.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, aka the Christchurch Basilica. Shipping containers as temporary supports are a not uncommon sight in the city.

Without a doubt the Cathedral and Basilica would fit the bill for the Piranesi treatment, and I do love Piranesi. But for me, the most affecting object in the Teece show was the tiny child’s sarcophagus, and the memorial plaques beside it. Death and loss seem overwhelming, all-consuming, and hope is lost. But what can survivors do in response except make beautiful objects, and offer dedications to the memory of those who (to quote the plaques) “well deserved” to be remembered? As hopeful humans, we keep piling up stones, making new, making good, even though we know that nothing we make can truly last forever.

I’ve just been reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, and my thought above is expressed far better by him. “…for life to be large and full, it must contain the care of the past and of the future in every passing moment of the present. Our daily work must be done to the glory of the dead, and for the good of those who come after.” From afar, I’ve been unconvinced that it’s worth reconstructing the Cathedrals. But, faced with the sight of them, and seeing them on the same day as the Arts Centre, I’ve changed my mind. It’s worth trying to restore those churches, just as the Arts Centre has been restored. What else are poor hopeful humans to do? We’re fortunate, then, to have engineers, architects, historians, stonemasons—and many others—to shoulder the task.

Thanks!

With sincere thanks to John Hare, Owain Scullion, and Alistair Boyes of Holmes Consulting, for inviting me to visit the Arts Centre and for their generosity with their valuable time.

Update

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John Hare checked in to provide some more background on Holmes’ involvement with the Arts Centre project.

“The strengthening being done now is now part of a much more comprehensive programme that was always intended, but is now being amalgamated into the repairs. That commences in 1978 or thereabouts, when the Arts Centre came into existence. The general approach was:

  • Stage 1 – secure the buildings to make them a good as they could be, ie tie in the floors and roofs and add a few elements to take out the worst of the structural weaknesses, and address the most critical life safety falling hazards – chimneys for example.
  • Stage 2 – protect as much as possible of the fragile heritage secondary structural and non-structural elements
  • Stage 3 – full seismic upgrading.

“In practice, money was always short so Stage 1 was done bit-by-bit with parts of stage 2 added in where practical. A big push in the late 90s saw most of the Stage 1 worked completed with outside help, but most of the work to that time was done by Jim Loper, the on-site Master of everything! And later in the piece, with Chris Whitty, now the Site and Restoration Manager.

“We did a few big studies, starting as far back as 1996, as I remember it, for the Stage 3, but other matters were judged more important, such as fire protection (which I supported at the time – fire would be hugely destructive there).

“As a consequence, only the Old Registry (HA) and the Old Girls High (DA) were strengthened to anything like what we now regard as a reasonable level (I think both were to 67% at the time, therefore around 50% against current code).

“The original post-tensioning (College Hall and Chemistry) was quite adventurous at the time! Done to a relatively low level and as such, prevented the worst of the damage, but needed significant upgrade for the current work.”

St Paul’s Church with Salmond Reed Architects and EQ STRUC

Today’s visit to St Paul’s Church marked the start of the third year of activities for our ad-hoc society. Simeon Hawkins from the church’s congregation led the way. Sean Kisby of Salmond Reed Architects and Peter Liu and Dr John Jing of EQ STRUC came along to tell us about their work on the nascent project of strengthening and refreshing St Paul’s Church.

St Paul’s Church, panorama from the Symonds St entrance looking East

The church, explained

Simeon, whose Master’s thesis focusses on the church, gave us a brief overview of its history. The current St Paul’s is the third building to bear the name. It’s a Gothic Revival building, begun in 1894. The church is cross-shaped, as convention dictates. The main body of the church is stone, with brick veneers inside from shoulder height to roof and brick structure below the floor. The roof members are timber. The transepts (the arms of the cross) are also timber, and the chancel, the head of the cross, where the altar is, was made from reinforced concrete and wasn’t completed until 1936.

The building is not quite as its architect William Skinner conceived it. He’d intended for a gallery to sit above the door, housing the choir. The rough masonry you can see around the base of the church was to be covered with timber panelling. The chancel was to be faced with stone. And, most noticeably, no spire was ever built atop the northwestern stairs. Still, the building is Category I in Heritage New Zealand’s list, all the more poignantly since the HNZ listing says “St Paul’s invites comparison with Sir Gilbert Scott’s only New Zealand work, Christchurch Cathedral”.

A door to nowhere five metres in the air denotes the spot where the choir gallery was to be built.

For my part—although I don’t have favourite children!—I have a soft spot in my heart for St Paul’s. Something about the cheerful pick-and-mix of its irregularly-sized stone arches, its glorious melange of materials, and its air of patient worshipfulness makes my heathen heart glad.

Fine stonecarvings, southern entrance, St Paul’s Church

First, do no harm

Sean Kisby picked up the thread. Salmond Reed, he explained, have a dual role at the church. Firstly, there’s a fair hatful of material repairs that need to be done: there’s stone to be replaced; roof coverings to be refreshed; lead and copper flashings to replace, too. It takes expertise in heritage materials to understand what should be done, and how best to do it. Tracey Hartley (and others) from SRA are supplying this knowledge.

In parallel, there’s a real gem of a design project to be done. The building needs seismic strengthening, with the aim of reaching 67% of the New Building Standard. The internal circulation needs to be improved—at the moment, masses of people must file up and down a tiny rear staircase. The main stair, a lovely wooden spiral, has literally rotted away, the victim of a “temporary” roof over the void that was to contain the spire.

St Paul’s Church, spiral staircase seen from the crypt

With the access reconfigured, and the rooms beneath the chancel refreshed, the long-term plan is to build out into the carpark, and (best-saved-for-last here), at long last to design and build a spire for the church. Surely that’s a commission to gladden the heart of any designer.

Strengthening the church

“Bring the building up to 67% NBS” I wrote above, glibly. So, how might that be done? Peter and John from EQ STRUC have been considering that question. Over the last few months, they’ve carried out an analysis of the building, including a LiDAR  scan of the building which created a detailed 3D image of the church. The LiDAR generates a point cloud, essentially a myriad of measured dimensions, allowing a viewer to see details of colour and ornamentation as well as capturing idiosyncrasies in the plan. The engineers also need to know how the mass of the building is distributed, and the point cloud helps to identify this, making later finite element modelling in Etabs or SAP2000 more accurate.

Dr John Jing explains the proposed strengthening solution to site visitors, St Paul’s Church

The EQ STRUC blokes were too modest to say this for themselves, so I’m going to say it for them: they’re really good at assessing and then using the strength of existing materials. This is important, very important, for heritage buildings. The conservative approach would be to discount the strength of unreinforced masonry down to almost nothing, necessitating a larger and more intrusive engineering intervention. Think whacking great steel frames marching down the aisles.

For the nave and the aisles, the solution that EQ STRUC have devised uses the existing materials to their own advantage. I need to caveat this by saying that, as yet, this is just a proposed solution, but here it is: the plan is to use the mass of the walls to dissipate earthquake energy by allowing the piers to rock.

How does this work? Let’s work our way down from the roof.

Looking up at the roof truss, St Paul’s Church

Firstly, a diaphragm will be inserted above the sarking and below the roof, allowing forces to be transferred. (The nave floor’s getting a new diaphragm, too.) The existing timber trusses will be enhanced with steel, stiffening them considerably. At the junction between the trusses and the wall, a moment joint will be created, meaning that the roof and wall can’t rotate towards or away from each other.

The walls and piers of the nave. Spandrels above openings. St Paul’s Church.

Along the walls, between the openings, the spandrels will be strengthened with fibre-reinforced polymer wraps (FRPs). This will greatly increase their ability to resist tension, helping them to stay intact in a quake. [see footnote for a follow-up on this][update April ’18]

A pier, St Paul’s Church.

Lastly, as noted above, the piers will then be permitted to rock. In a design-level earthquake, the pier will form two hinges: one above the plinth (at the second moulding) and the other below the capital (the leafy bit). The pier will then wobble back and forth on the hinges, dissipating energy as it does so.

How do you stop the pier from toppling over, and bringing the roof down with it? By tuning the stiffness of the moment joints up above, the quantity of deflection at the piers can be controlled. It’s elegant—if not easy—and the great virtue of the solution is that you don’t need to ruin the spatial qualities of the interior with ugly external bracing.

The rose window and the western gable, St Paul’s Church

The real doozy of a problem might be the western gable end. How best to brace the wall, given the aesthetic and historic constraints at play? The solution may come from the planned completion of the choir gallery, absent from the church for so long. The gallery would run along the wall just below the level of the two long windows in the picture above. As at the Town Hall and Hopetoun Alpha, a gallery at the midheight of a tall wall can be a structural godsend, concealing crucial structural bracing, and reducing the risk of a potentially deadly of out-of-plane collapse

Peter Liu explains strengthening schemes to site visitors, the crypt, St Paul’s Church. Composite image.

To the Crypt!

Beneath the nave lies the crypt. Although you enter the church at ground level from Symonds St, the ground slopes away steeply to the east, and there’s a generous space beneath the floor of the nave. The space is used for a range of church activities. Here, in this unfussy rough-brick room,  it might be forgivable to insert some supplementary steel structure. EQ STRUC are proposing to do so, thus completing the rocking system described above by giving the piers a solid base to wobble on. (The slender piers of the nave are supported on the chunkier brick piers of the crypt, which you can see in the photograph above.)

Tension cracking in the transverse brick arches of the crypt, St Paul’s Church

Down in the crypt, we could see old signs of damage caused to the church  by the city growing around it. The church abuts the motorway trench of busy Wellesley Street, dug in the 1970s (? don’t quote me on this date!) As the ground settled post-trench, the foundations rotated outwards, creating tension cracking like that shown above. Don’t panic, though: a geotechnical report showed that the settlement has long subsided, and there’s no fear of further rotation and damage.

St Paul’s, south side, coming up the slope from the carpark. Timber transept meets masonry nave. Note irregular finishing of wall, perhaps intended to join to masonry veneers?
St Pauls, concrete chancel/transept and masonry nave.

 What are you made of?

As noted above, and as you can see in these images, the church is made from a variety of materials. There’s stone, brick, reinforced concrete (RC), and timber. How, I asked, would you assess the interaction between the RC and masonry elements of the building?

Here, it seems, the timber transept is invaluable. The timber’s elasticity should take up any differential movement between the RC and masonry sections. This means that the RC and the masonry were able to be assessed as two separate structures, removing a layer of complexity from the analysis.

Given the building’s Category I status, it’s not easy to make a case for destructive testing to establish the strength of materials. EQ STRUC have a database of material tests from similar structures to fall back on, for establishing likely material properties.

Signatures of the builders? Stairwell, St Paul’s Church.

Talk to me

In the crypt, I asked Peter, John, and Sean about collaboration between architects and engineers, hoping for dark and ghastly tales to befit at least the name of the surroundings. Instead, they talked about the pleasure of collaboration, of working together and modifying each others’ solutions to arrive at the best result. In all seriousness, such collaboration is a theme of our Society, since we’re composed of would-be members of each profession. It’s great to hear that the working world embraces this philosophy of co-operation.

Dr Jing made a comment that intrigued me. “You need to draw,” he said. “I always take a pen and paper to meetings and to site.” Calculations can be confusing, explanations are often ambiguous, but sketching makes for clear communication. Architects will be unsurprised by this, I think, but it’s food for thought for student engineers.

Thanks!

Sincere thanks are due to Sean Kisby from Salmond Reed Architects, and to Peter Liu and Dr John Jing of EQ STRUC, for their generous sharing of time and expertise. We’re also exceedingly grateful to Simeon Hawkins and Esther Grant from St Paul’s, and to the marvellous people who came and offered coffee and hospitality. Thank you for sharing your beautiful church with us. We look forward to seeing the project develop.

Footnote

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Bricks in the spandrel area, closeup. Photo courtesy Tracey Hartley, all rights reserved.

Tracey Hartley touched base, following up on the proposal to use FRPs to reinforce the spandrel areas. Regarding the bricks in the spandrels, she notes “I believe they are a rough pale brick with large joints, originally coloured over with a red ochre finish and lined out (tuck pointed) to make the brickwork smarter looking.” The final design may involve restoring this finish, so covering with FRPs may be more difficult. Also, the breathability of FRPs needs to be determined so that moisture isn’t trapped in the brickwork.

I thought it was interesting to include this as a footnote, to illustrate how the process of design is a compromise or collaboration between the expertise and priorities of the professionals working on a project. Working together, the architects and engineers will devise an acceptable solution.

Update April ’18

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I ran into Dr Jing today and we talked about the FRPs for the spandrels and piers in the nave. Dr Jing explained that the FRPs in the spandrels were never going to be added onto the surface of the bricks, as I had thought. Instead, they would be mounted into little slots cut into the bricks. The slots would be ~3-4mm wide and span across several brick units, being anchored at top and bottom into bolts. This near-surface mounting would make the FRP intervention much less visually intrusive than if it were covering the surface (as per Tracey Hartley’s note above). To reiterate, it was never the plan to mount the FRPs on the surface: the EQ STRUC team were always intending them to be near-surface mounted.

One final point. I hadn’t picked up that the piers were also to be FRP wrapped, not just the spandrels. The FRP wrapping would naturally add great confinement strength to the pier. However, by varying the length and position of the wrap, the EQ STRUC engineers can force the plastic hinge to form in the places they want it to: at the top and bottom, as per the pictures above.

Eight things I learned by reading Section C8

I know, I know: a listicle. How 2011! But this is a site about heritage, after all… Here’s the pitch. I’ve been reading Section C8 Unreinforced Masonry Buildings from The Seismic Assessment of Existing Buildings, written by a team of researchers, academics and professionals and published at eq-assess.org.nz. (I mentioned it in the post on bed joint sliding shear.)

You might think it sounds tedious, but it’s not. It’s well-written, well-illustrated, and provides some really useful and clear categorisation of structures and the ways they can fail. I needed to read it: this is the work I want to do. Some of you might be in the same position. But even if you’re not interested in doing seismic retrofit, if you’re involved in any way with building works on heritage buildings made from URM, you should probably leaf through the first few sections.

It would be presumptuous and preposterous for me to write a “review” of Section C8. I don’t understand it well enough to do so. But I thought I’d share my own highlights, as a way of enticing others to have a look. We’ll see how it goes.


Christchurch

On a more serious note, this article includes images of damaged and collapsed buildings from Christchurch. The following is presented with sincere respect to the 185 people who died in the 2011 earthquake and to their families. Let’s work to try to stop something like that happening again. Kua hinga te tōtara i Te Waonui-a-Tāne. HT


 

Section through a cavity wall. Note also the change in thickness at the first floor, creating a ledge for the joist to sit on. From Section C8 Unreinforced Masonry Buildings, in The Seismic Assessment of Existing Buildings, at eq-assess.org.nz. Attributed to Holmes Consulting Group.

1.  Spot cavities with algebra

It was common practice to have a vertical cavity in brick walls. The cavity provided a barrier to moisture, and the outer wall could be made from higher-quality bricks that gave a finer appearance to the building. (The cavity is the black line running down the wall in the picture above.)

There are various complexities pertaining to the ties that were used to hold the layers of wall together across the cavity, how those ties have lasted, and how to assess the relative motion of the outer wythe (the veneer of good bricks) and the inner wythe(s). I won’t go into those here beyond noting that they exist. The question is, how do you know whether there’s a cavity, if you haven’t made a hole in the wall?

Algebra to the rescue! Well, multiplication, anyway. Brick are standard sizes. They’re usually 110mm thick (taking “thickness” as the dimension going into the wall). With some mortar in between wythes, that means that two wythes (layers) ≈ 230mm, three wythes ≈ 350mm, and four wythes ≈ 450mm. So if your wall thickness isn’t pretty close to one of those numbers—check for a cavity.


Insufficient connections between (floor and ceiling) diaphragms and walls leading to out-of-plane collapse. Section C8, as above, eq-assess-org.nz

2. Loose diaphragms fall out (sorry)

We’ve heard on site about floor joists sitting on ledges and maybe falling off when the ground shakes. We’ve also heard, on almost every site we’ve visited, about how tying the diaphragm into the walls at floor height, ceiling or both, can improve the structural performance of the building. What Section C8 makes clear is that the diaphragm can act to redistribute loads from out-of-plane to in-plane walls. If the diaphragm deforms too much, though, it won’t be able to support the walls effectively. In fact, too much diaphragm deformation can actually shove a face-loaded wall right off the edge of the building.


In-plane sliding on a damp-proof course. Section C8, as above, eq-assess.org.nz

3. Slip-‘n’-slide on a damp-proof course

For walls loaded in-plane (along their long axis), one of the possible failure modes is in-plane sliding. I wrote about one version of this in my post on bed joint shear testing. Section C8 points out that damp-proof courses can also be vulnerable to sliding.

To stop moisture wicking upwards through porous masonry, a layer of damp-proof non-porous material was commonly included in brick walls. Bitumen, slate, lead, or similar waterproofing was laid down in a continuous layer, usually not far above the foundations. (At a building I saw this summer, the DPC is granite, but that’s exceptional.)

Turns out, those damp-proof materials are softer than the masonry, or perhaps bond less well to the surrounding materials. Or maybe the change of material just provides a stress concentration. I don’t know! Still, I’d never seen or heard about DPCs as a site for sliding until I read C8.


Parapets tied back to a roof with raking braces — but are they sufficiently restrained in the vertical direction? Section C8, as above, eq-assess.org.nz. Attributed to Dmytro Dizhur.

4. Vertical tie-down for parapets

It’s a common sight around the traps to look up and see a steel brace holding back a parapet. Job done, right? Maybe not. Section C8 points out that such braces may not have enough capacity to deal with vertical displacement, especially when shaking of the roof plane is amplified by the brace and transmitted to the parapet. Quoth C8: “The danger of non-robust strengthening is that the parapet still fails, but collapses in larger, more dangerous pieces.” Not good. The parapet may need to be drilled and post-tensioned onto the top of the wall below.


As axial load increases, masonry walls gain strength from confinement. From Section C8, as above, eq-assess.org.nz. Attributed to Dunning Thornton.

5. Look out above

I suspect if you’d asked me whether masonry buildings suffered more damage at the top or the bottom in earthquakes, I’d’ve said the bottom. Makes sense, right? The walls crush and they turn over? Wrong. Generally speaking, the more axial load that is on the masonry walls, the stronger they are and the better they resist disintegration. Of course, this depends on the building form, the shaking, and other things, but the relationship between axial load and strength is useful to know.


Failure modes. Left, out-of-plane failure: instability of wall insufficiently tied in. Right, in-plane failure: spandrel failure, diagonal tension cracking, toe-crushing of piers. [Right, Section C8, as above, eq-assess.org. Attributed to Sharpe. Left, CCC Heritage, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License]

6. We don’t talk about failure here

Section C8 enumerates the failure modes of URM buildings. I won’t write a list or a summary, but I will say that I found it really clarified my thinking about how buildings work to consider a finite list of failure modes. When I look at a structure now, I feel much better informed about how to break it into chunks and think about how each chunk might move and how it might fail. From that perspective, reading C8 was like taking your American mate to the cricket and telling him where to look.


Hierarchy of vulnerability, Section C8, as above, from eq-assess.org.nz

6b. And what to look for

An afterthought to the above. In assessing the structure, the C8 guidelines suggest working from left to right on this hierarchy chain, with the idea that the most vulnerable components of the building, those which are likely to fail first, are at the left. No good wasting time and money diagnosing a complex in-plane failure mode if the parapet’s not secured.


Ten steps. The assessment procedure, Section C8, as above, from eq-assess.org.nz

7. Ten simple steps…

I suppose I haven’t much to add to the image above. These are the guidelines which C8 provides to engineers as advice on how they should approach assessing a building. As with #6 above, for me this helped to understand how engineers divide the building into a set of observations and parameters which allow a model to be created—and don’t bother creating one that exceeds the complexity of the structure! I will be trying to hold these ideas in my head on our next site visit (St Paul’s Church on the 13th of March) and to think about how I’d approach the task of assessing the building. Thankfully we’ll have Peter Liu from EQ STRUC with us to show us how it’s really done!


A video from the Uminho Research Group on Historical and Masonry Structures. This is apparently a strengthened model. Still, watch the upper sections of the wall crack at the floor line and rock.

8. Walls rock

Walls under face load can be modelled as rocking. This means if the load is perpendicular to the wall, the wall can be “assumed to form hinge lines at the points where effective horizontal restraint is assumed to be applied… At mid height between these pivots… a third pivot point is assumed to form.”

When I read those words I recalled John O’Hagan talking about this at Hopetoun Alpha, but I think I understand it a little better now. To me, it feels different to think about a masonry wall in an earthquake as two rigid panels teetering one atop the other, as opposed to thinking about n bricks shuffling about independently, or as one rigid surface.

And this is the note on which I’ll leave this post. C8 offers quite a lot of guidance about how to make simplifying assumptions that allow analyses to be made, the rocking walls being one. It also offers suggestions for how to calculate important parameters if you can’t or haven’t tested them—things like tensile strength of the masonry. The impression I had, on reading these guidelines, was that the task of doing this kind of work myself someday seemed not impossible. Surely that’s the most sincere praise I can offer.

Testing mortar on-site with EQ STRUC, February 2018

What’s this then?

I’ve mentioned here before that I’m working for Salmond Reed Architects this summer. Recently, I had the opportunity to observe an on-site test of the material properties of some mortar at a heritage building in Auckland, and I thought I’d share some of the details here. The site is a late-nineteenth century two-storey brick building. (To clarify some jargon used henceforth:  bricks = unreinforced masonry = URM). I’ve been given permission to share the test procedure, but I haven’t sought permission to disclose exactly where the testing was being carried out, so that is a deliberate omission from the post. Still, I thought the process was novel and interesting enough that some of you might enjoy hearing more about it.

Borderline punching shear failure, wall anchor. From Section C8 Unreinforced Masonry Buildings, in The Seismic Assessment of Existing Buildings at eq-assess.org.nz. Attributed to Dymtro Dizhur, et. al.

So you think you’re pretty tough

If you’re going to assess an existing building, you have to decide how you think the building might fail. For URM buildings, there is a hierarchy of failure modes from most likely to least likely, and an engineer needs to work down through  the hierarchy, examining all of the possible modes. At a certain point, the assessment will find a mode that causes something unacceptable to happen under the predicted load. That doesn’t mean that the assessment stops there: but certainly, something needs to be done about the potential failures and their resulting risk to life.

So far, so tidy. But there’s a problem. Heritage materials are far from homogenous. The 1920s concrete at the St James Theatre  is soft and drummy, whereas on another site I recently saw 1920s concrete that was described to me as “rock-hard”. Bricks can be low-fired and soft, or fired at high temperature and hardened. Stone’s anisotropic. And mortar’s really idiosyncratic. How much lime went in? Were there shells in the sand? How wet or dry has it been throughout its life? It’s hard to predict the strength of hand-mixed materials from a time before the standardisation of products. The true in-situ strength of the material, the actual number, will make a difference to which failure modes come out of the analysis as critical weaknesses, and how much work you have to do to the building. Hence also the dollars involved. So how do you find out how strong the materials at your specific building truly are, and hence, how they will fail? You test them.

Sliding shear along a defined plane. From Section C8 Unreinforced Masonry Buildings, in The Seismic Assessment of Existing Buildings at eq-assess.org.nz. Attributed to Dunning Thornton.

In due course

Mortar’s not brick glue. Its primary purpose is not to stick bricks together. Instead, it provides a slightly compressible joint between the bricks as they sit in their stacks, allowing them to expand and contract without cracking each other to shards. Generally, mortar is softer than the bricks, especially lime mortar, and this is a good thing.

Notwithstanding the above, the mortar is the thing that stops the bricks sliding across each other if the wall gets shoved along its length, for example by an earthquake. The test that I observed, a bed joint shear test, examines how well the mortar prevents the bricks sliding across each other. It seeks to establish a cohesion value for the mortar. Key takeaway: it’s a mortar test, not a brick test.

Diagonal tension cracking, piers. From Section C8 Unreinforced Masonry Buildings, in The Seismic Assessment of Existing Buildings at eq-assess.org.nz. Attributed to Dmytro Dizhur.

The cohesion value influences several important failure modes: embedded anchor pullout; punching shear for plate anchors; (diagonal tensile strength leading to) diagonal tensile cracking and spandrel shear due to flexure; and bed-joint sliding. In this post, you’re seeing  pictures of several of these modes. For the building that was being tested, the  EQ STRUC engineers told me that the cohesion value was going to be used for calculating bed joint sliding shear.

Bed joint sliding, stair-step crack sliding in low axial load walls. From Section C8 Unreinforced Masonry Buildings, in The Seismic Assessment of Existing Buildings at eq-assess.org.nz. Attributed to Bothara.

The bed joint shear test is carried out by taking a brick out of the wall and using a hydraulic jack to push on the bricks either side of the hole. When the brick that’s being pushed starts to move, that means that the mortar has failed. Simple. In a moment, I’ll show some images of the steps. But before that… this.

Bed joint sliding shear

Bed joint sliding shear is calculated thusly:

Bed joint sliding shear, equation C8.33, from Section C8 (Unreinforced Masonry Buildings) of The Seismic Assessment of Existing Buildings, from eq-assess.org.nz

I hope it won’t totally destroy my credibility if I tell you that my first reaction to seeing the above was yuck. But on closer inspection, the equation is pretty straightforward, and considering its terms really helps to understand what is being measured.

Firstly, the µf(P + Pw) bit. That’s just saying that the load pressing on the bricks makes them rub on each other, which makes it harder for them to slide across each other. More load on top: harder to slide the bricks.

Secondly, the tnomLwc bit. tnom and Lare the thickness and the length, so really that’s an area: the area of the bed joint. And the cohesion value is the stickness. How sticky is the mortar, per area? That’s what this part is describing.

In the real-world bed joint shear test, the engineers try to make the equation even simpler, because the friction bit mightn’t be completely obvious: exactly how much load IS on the wall at the time you test? You can measure the height of the wall, but what about superimposed loads? So, to avoid worrying about this, the EQ STRUC team carried out the testing on bricks just underneath windows, where there wouldn’t be much imposed load. That means the cohesion can be found by knowing how much area of mortar you were testing (the bed joint size) and how hard you shoved the brick.

Opening up and finding a stretcher course

The test, in detail

First, catch your brick. I’ve noted above that the best spot to test is under a window. Another limitation is that the test should only be carried out with stretcher bricks in a stretcher course. If you’re not sure what that means: stretchers are laid along the wall, headers are laid across the wall. Like so:

A brick wall, anatomised.

The tests I saw were all carried out on the internal wythe of the brick wall. (A wythe is a layer of thickness–ie, a wall that’s three bricks thick is laid in three wythes, usually interlocked. There’s more complexity to this but that’ll do for now.) So, to carry out the test, you need to open up the linings and identify the right course to test.

Using a mortar saw to remove a brick; and a closeup of the mortar saw

Secondly, a single brick is removed. This means using a mortar saw to take out all the mortar above, below, and to the side of the bricks. On the picture two up you can see that these are the two bed joints and the two head joints. The brick gets extracted whole and can be replaced later.

A brick is removed. The mark reads “W Hunt, Auckland”

Mortar is removed from the extracted brick, and set aside for future testing—think of it as something like a concrete cylinder test. This testing isn’t part of determining cohesion.

The head joint is removed from the far side of a brick adjacent to the hole

Thirdly, the head joint is removed from the far side of one of the bricks adjacent to the hole. This is to give the brick that will be shoved some room to move. If the mortar wasn’t removed, the test results would be affected by the compressibility of the mortar in the head joint.

A jack exerts force on the brick, shearing the mortar in the bed joints above and below

Finally, the jack is inserted. It’s pumped by hand, exerting a force on the brick. The mortar in the bed joints above and below the brick resists the force. Since we’re testing under a window, there’s basically not much friction from the weight above. So the thing that’s stopping the brick moving is the two bed joints.

When the shove gets strong enough to move the brick—that’s deemed to be the point of failure, and the value is recorded. This is the peak value, meaning how much force would have to be exerted on the bricks by an earthquake to get them to start moving. Once they’re moving, they still need some force to keep them moving. So the engineers reset the jack, and pump it up once more until the brick begins sliding again—at which point, the residual value has been found.

The brick on the other side of the hole can now be tested. The engineers wedge something into the vacant head joint on the first brick—to prevent further sliding—and then cut out the head joint on the second brick, before testing again as described above. With a set of values from paired tests carried out around the building, an average value can be determined. Remember, we know the area of the bed joints, we know how much force we used, we’re ignoring friction, so there’s only one unknown: the cohesion value.

Engineers read the gauge on the jack during bed joint shear testing

Mouthfeel

There’s a somewhat subjective element to the tests. As for most things, it takes experience to determine exactly when sliding has begun. The tester gets a certain amount of physical feedback from the unloading of the jack as the brick slides, but even then, the exact moment of failure and the associated peak value are not precisely defined.

And this is only appropriate. After all, the mortar isn’t going to be homogenous throughout the whole building. Nor will other conditions be exactly similar. What’s required is something more like a geotechnical value—which is to say, a good rigorous estimate of the cohesion, into which some safety margins can be built. It’d be possible, with more elaborate equipment, to measure the load and the deflection more precisely; but a more precise number wouldn’t really be more meaningful.

Thanks!

Thanks are very much due to Romain Knowles and Antti Wallenius from EQ STRUC. Thanks also to Phillip Hartley from Salmond Reed Architects for getting me in the door at the site.

Pitt St Buildings with Tracey Hartley of Salmond Reed

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.

On the (new) roof, Pitt St Buildings, facing south towards K Road

Braced back

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.

Pitt St Buildings, detail of parapet bracing inside roof space
Pitt St Buildings, detail of the brickwork of the parapet, inside the roof space. Note the rounded courses, corresponding to decorative roundels on the street side. See also the line of bolts on the timber at the gables. I was told by the contractor that they assist restraint of the brick panels.

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.

Pitt St Buildings, detail of connection between brace and parapet

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.

Pitt St Buildings, lead gutter cap

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.

Pitt St Buildings, K Road corner. Framing for new roof, with steel parapet bracing visible. Note also the original tie-rods crossing over at the lower left. They appeared to be slack.

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.

Detailing

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.

Pitt St Buildings, detail of water flow path for new gutter. The water passes through the gap in the bricks.

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.

Pitt St Buildings, preparation for re-roofing, Pitt St side

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.

Thanks!

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.

Pitt St Buildings, canopy tie pulled out of pilaster.

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.

The City Rail Link, Auckland Baptist Tabernacle, Mercury Theatre, Hopetoun Alpha, and the Pitt St Methodist Church with Edward Bennett and John Fellows, August 2017

Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil, designed by Norman Garwood, tells its story partly by creating contrasting spaces. There are cramped domestic interiors; imposing civic buildings; sparse and frightening chambers of horrors. The look of the film, Gilliam said, came from “looking at beautiful Regency houses, Nash terrace houses, where, smashing through the cornices, is the wastepipe from the loo… …all these times exist right now and people don’t notice them. They’re all there.*”

On Friday, as site visitors toured around four significant buildings in the Karangahape Road precinct, Brazil was on my mind. Mostly, this was because I knew we were going to go past the ghost of what used to be my favourite cafe in Auckland, named and themed after the film. But as we toured, it seemed to me that the film’s aesthetic echoed something about the sites we were looking at. All of them had hidden beauty; odd spaces; unexpected textures and histories to reveal. The face they show the street doesn’t always match what’s inside. And all of them exist in the anachronistic mish-mash that is K Road, a space that’s being opened up and re-invented by the imminent arrival of the City Rail Link tunnel.

In company with Edward Bennett, K Road historian, and joined along the way by John Fellows of the City Rail Link, we learned a little more about the tunneling, discovered a couple of the loveliest interiors in Auckland, and even climbed through a trapdoor on a folding ladder—seemingly a recurring theme of these site visits. Follow me and I’ll show you some of what we saw.

Auckland Baptist Tabernacle

Auckland Baptist Tabernacle, Queen St.

The Auckland Baptist Tabernacle is a study in hierarchies. Front on, its Classical rigour is imposing—its design was based on the Pantheon in Rome. But from any other angle than dead centre, the building reveals its more prosaic brickwork—to me, generous and well crafted, but to Victorian tastes, horribly patchy and common. The walls were intended to be stucco’d to a shiny white, but this never happened.

Well-proportioned windows at the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle. Note the brick lintel and the irregular colour of the bricks.
Auckland Baptist Tabernacle, looking down into the main hall from the gallery.

Inside, the Tabernacle shifts gears again. The spaces are large—indeed, this was the largest room in Auckland when built in 1885—but not imposing. It’s perhaps not the authoritarian space that the portico might suggest. The authority, Edward explained, came from the moral rigour that the congregation practiced, and was intended to set clergy and flock on a more level footing.

Structurally, the room is noteworthy for the curved rear wall, intended to bounce sound back into the room. There are slender cast iron pillars supporting the gallery. But, most of all, this is a large span. And the span had to be crossed without the aid of structural steel. Luckily for the church’s builders, then, that they lived in a country where 2000-year old kauri grew strong and straight! Thirteen good-sized ‘uns were ordered up from the North, and were duly sawed to size. We climbed through a hatch in the ceiling to have a look. Here’s where it got a little Brazil.

In the ceiling, Auckland Baptist Tabernacle

As you can see above and at the top of this post, there’s a large-ish ceiling space above the main hall. Truthfully, I was a little preoccupied with my fear that a site visitor would put a foot wrong and crash sixty feet to their doom (“how can Santa Claus get in if we don’t have a chimney?”), but nevertheless I managed to cast an eye over the structure. There are large kauri rafters, long straight members which make up the top and bottom chords of the truss. The hall doesn’t run the length of the building—there are sizeable rooms behind for other kinds of functions, and so the building is divided about half way by a brick shear wall, which goes up through the whole building almost to the underside of the roof.

As the tour continued, I butted in to a conversation that Professor Jason Ingham was having about the Tabernacle. For those of you who don’t know him, Jason is responsible—among a number of other things!—for developing methods to analyse the strength of unreinforced masonry buildings. Jason explained that this kind of building is a classic example of a structure that isn’t explained well by conventional structural dynamics. Instead, said Jason, the ceiling has to be thought of as a flexible diaphragm (not a rigid one), and assessment and strengthening should be designed on that basis. That doesn’t, of course, solve the problem that (like most churches) you are dealing with a big empty box with long not-so-strong sides. Still, there may be more strength in the building than conventional analysis would suggest.

Mercury Theatre

Mercury Theatre, the stalls and the corner of the gallery. Showing the “restored” but perhaps over-garish colour scheme

Next stop was the Mercury Theatre, opened in 1910 and Auckland’s oldest surviving theatre. It has been through a number of reinventions in its time: as a picture palace; a 1970s black-box theatre; a church; a language school; and so on. Like the Tabernacle, it’s a brick building, but in the intervening 25 years between the Tab’ and the Mercury, structural steel was introduced: so the Mercury’s large roof is held up by I-beams, not kauri. [Edit (25 Aug 17): Thanks to Mike Skinner on the K Road Heritage Facebook page who pointed out that the Mercury’s roof beams are timber and provided a picture.]

The theatre is ornate, having kept most of its plasterwork intact even through the austerities of a 1970s all-black paintjob. When it was last restored, the paint was scraped back revealing the bright blues and reds you see in the photo. These colours were duly reinstated—but Edward’s opinion is that the bright colours would’ve been more muted in the original, overlaid with paint effects: in fact, he thinks the bright blue was probably an undercoat.

Pressed-metal ceiling, Mercury Theatre foyer

There’s a large expanse of lovely pressed-metal ceiling still to be seen in the entrance foyer, and Edward explained that at the time of construction, this was believed to be a fireproof material. Sadly, fires in other buildings with pressed-metal ceilings disproved this notion, and these ceilings were mostly torn out, becoming quite rare.

Complex forms beneath the gallery, Mercury Theatre

For my part, I enjoyed the profusion and contradiction of the forms and decorations of the theatre. It’s hard, on first sight, to get a sense of the exact extent of the space and its orientation, and this slightly warren-like quality is exacerbated by the theatre’s position, tucked down the lane, its façade declaiming bravely and boldly at an audience who are not there to watch.

John Fellows now took the stage at the Mercury. This was the perfect place for him to speak, as, come 2019, ground will be broken next door for the new Karangahape Station, part of the City Rail Link. The project involves digging a large pit at the south edge of the theatre, a pit which descends some ten stories. The station’s platforms will extend underneath the Mercury, underneath K Road, and underneath some of Pitt St on the other side.

It’s an audacious project, but of course one with plenty of precedents in all the major cities of the world. John explained that careful consideration has been given to minimising the impact that the CRL will have on the surrounding  buildings, both during construction and in operation. For example, the tunnels that will take passengers down from the Mercury Lane entrance to the station will veer out under the roadway, rather than passing under the theatre. This is to avoid noise and vibration passing up into the structures above.

John also explained that the results of subsurface core sampling have been encouraging. The soil, at the depth where the work has to be done, is East Coast Bays sandstone—common throughout Auckland. This soil can vary widely in its strength, but the good news is that the stuff underneath the Mercury is stronger than expected. This will make shoring up the pit next to the Mercury easier, and makes settlement less likely.

Decorative profusion, Mercury Theatre

As a sidenote, John described the system that is protecting the heritage buildings of Albert St, where the cut-and-cover tunnel work for the lower end of the line is currently proceeding. A network of over 1300 laser sensors is trained on the buildings’ exteriors, measuring in real time any deflections that might occur. If the movements of the buildings were to exceed the design parameters—hold the phone! The work stops immediately until the problem is resolved.

John had  plenty more to say about the plans for the station, about its design programme, mana whenua, use of local materials, bicycle integration, green design, and other topics. He said, just as Jeremy Salmond said at the Melanesian Mission, that he doesn’t see the purpose of trying to make a new building look like an old one just to “blend in” with its surroundings. Instead, John says, why not try to design a building that in 50-100 years will become a historic building in its own right? There was more to say and more to ask about all this, and the good news is that there will be an opportunity to hear more from John when he speaks at an ACE event in September. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for details.

We site visitors moved on to one of the loveliest hidden treasures in the city: the palm court in the disused K Road entranceway to the Mercury. To increase foot traffic to the Mercury, shortly after it was opened the owners purchased a narrow sliver of land and built a barrel-vaulted entranceway that took punters down into the theatre. As I mentioned, some will remember it as Brazil cafe. Now it’s a fast food joint. With brick-pattern wallpaper.

The Palm Court, Mercury Theatre

Tucked away, though, in between the Mercury and the now-disconnected entranceway, is the palm court. This was intended as a scene of Hollywood glamour to pass through on the way to the movies. Designed by Daniel Patterson, topped with a stunning leadlight dome, the room has retained its glamour and charm through decades of disuse. Fashionistas, artists, clairvoyants: what a studio space! Get in there, you muggs! (The author confesses to having once practiced one of the three professions listed above.)

Hopetoun Alpha

Hopetoun Alpha

Hopetoun Alpha is a delight. I felt the same sense of joy and astonishment as when I first entered St-Matthew-in-the-City, last year. It’s a light, delicate, finely-proportioned space—a Leipzig shoebox, just like Auckland Town Hall. Before you even get inside, the portico is unusual enough to warrant a better look. It’s painted a bold red with a pale blue soffit, creating a sense of interiority in comparison to the pale sides.

Red portico, Hopetoun Alpha
Blue ceiling, portico, Hopetoun Alpha. Note the marked curvature of the wall.
The “oak” door, Hopetoun Alpha, in fact made of kauri. Note the “ashlar” lines on the wall, which is in fact made of concrete.

From the pictures above, you can see that the front wall is curved, once again to produce sound reflection and natural amplification inside. The wall looks a bit like ashlar, doesn’t it? But in fact it is mass concrete, unreinforced. Timber trusses span the walls, just like at the Tabernacle. Speaking of timber and things that look like other things, the main door to Hopetoun Alpha appears to be oak—but scratches on its surface show that the oak is a paint effect, and the door is kauri. Fashions have changed, and now real fake oak is rarely seen.

It’s inside that Hopetoun Alpha truly shines. We were all delighted with its lightness and grace.

Interior, Hopetoun Alpha
Interior, Hopetoun Alpha. Detail of decorative elements. Slender cast iron columns.

Like many other buildings of its age and general type, Hopetoun Alpha and its owners are now having to give consideration to earthquake strengthening. There’s some hope that the gallery or mezzanine could act as a diaphragm, strengthening the outer walls.  [Edit: Edward Bennett kindly corrected me: the gallery was inserted into the 1875 building in 1885, “which is why it rather awkwardly passes in front of the windows”. The point I was trying (and failing) to make is that perhaps a retrofit can strengthen the gallery or be concealed inside it, to brace the long walls. HT]

Visitors to the Auckland Town Hall will remember that its gallery conceals a large truss designed to brace the long walls. Subsequent to our visit, I spoke with John O’Hagan of Compusoft Engineering, a firm known to site visitors from the St James Theatre visit last year. John’s supervising some investigations into the materials, foundations, and structural members of the building. We may yet have the chance to return and learn more.

Pitt St Methodist Church

Pitt St Methodist Church, with the 1962 porch

Last but not least we arrived at the Pitt St Methodist Church, nipping in through the Wesley Bicentennial Hall, for which there’s sadly no more space in this post. The Pitt St Methodist is determinedly Neo-Gothic, echoing the style of an English parish church, and deliberately eschewing the Classical. It’s a brick building, spanned with timber arches, and incorporating wrought-iron tie rods to muscularly and pointedly restrain the springings of the arches. Edward explained that this style reflected the Neo-Gothic designers’ conception of the power of the Gothic—Gothic church-builders would have done this too if they’d had wrought iron.

Pitt St Methodist Church, interior

Earlier, I wrote about John Fellows’ contention that to design for a great historic building, you make a great contemporary design. Here at Pitt St, there are two shades of this theory in evidence. The first is the organ, which was rebuilt and rehoused in the 1960s into a large “tabernacle”, looking something like an enormous jukebox. Secondly, there is the porch, added on at the same time. The porch is concertina-folded, with windows and doors shaped as stylised versions of the Gothic ogive. It’s very likely inspired by the Coventry Cathedral of a similar date, says Edward. Both the organ and the porch inspired mixed feelings from visitors, some feeling that they added a new dimension, others that they detracted from the original form of the building.

Pitt St Methodist Church, the organ in its 1962 “Tabernacle” rehousing.

Heritage buildings are living things, truth to tell, and there’s no one point at which you can freeze them and say, that’s it. For me, the comment that resonated was Paula King’s—she works for the Trust that owns Hopetoun Alpha. Paula said that using Hopetoun Alpha for good things “keeps its battery charged”; and keeping it charged gives it the power to last longer and speak louder, perhaps loud enough that future generations will still be able to hear it.

Thanks!

Our thanks to Edward Bennett and to John Fellows. You can read more about K Road’s buildings and their history at the kroad.com site, written by Edward. You can also read about the plans for Karangahape Station on the City Rail Link’s site.

* The quotation at the start of this post is from Bob McCabe’s book Dark Knights and Holy Fools: The Art and Films of Terry Gilliam: From Before Python to Beyond Fear and Loathing 1999 p.141.

Disclaimer: all ideas, information, insight are Edward’s and John’s. Errors of fact or interpretation are all my own work. HT

Auckland Town Hall with George Farrant, May 2017

The clock mechanism, Auckland Town Hall.

To potential clock room taggers and graffiti artists: All tags, names and graffiti will be promptly removed and you will be forever haunted by the ghost of the clock tower.

 Thus read the notice meeting the eyes of Auckland Town Hall site visitors on Monday and Tuesday, as they put their heads through the trapdoor at the top of the ladder to the clock room. As Ray Parker, Jr. said, I ain’t afraid of no ghost: but it seemed to me what we saw on the tour, the fruits of the restoration work carried out from 1994-97, was certainly the resurrected spirit of the original design of the Town Hall. No effort was spared to return the building to something approaching its original state, and, at the same time, to make it safe and strong for the future. True to form for ghosts, the structural upgrades are in many cases invisible—or at least, hidden from the eye where members of the public can ordinarily go. On this visit, we went behind the scenes.

Bluestone on the lower floor, Oamaru stone above, but right at the top the true building material of the Town Hall: bricks.
Town Hall exterior, northeastern corner. Bluestone on the lower floor, Oamaru stone above, but right at the top, the true building material of the Town Hall: bricks.

BIG EMPTY BOXES

The Auckland Town Hall is essentially a brick building. It is faced with Oamaru stone and with Melbourne bluestone, the latter brought over by the Australian
architects of the Town Hall—a prime example of coals to Newcastle in this basalt-bottomed town. There’s reinforced concrete in the foundations, in the form of piers and floor beams. Structurally, however, the Town Hall suffered from some of the usual flaws of unreinforced masonry buildings: vulnerability to face loading of external walls, and insufficient shear strength.

 

In out-of-the-way areas, remedies for these problems could be visible. On lateral cross walls, shear strength was improved by adding a 100mm-thick concrete skin to the bricks. That doesn’t stop the building rocking itself off its foundations, so the basement-level concrete was tied into new piles, hand-dug for lack of headroom. Longitudinal walls at the upper level had fibreglass glued to them, and this was covered with plaster. For various reasons, some of the internal brick walls had new openings cut into them. To retain the shear strength of the wall and to leave a record of the intervention, these openings were finished with a visible internal frame of structural concrete. This frame-within-a-frame motif, used to signify a modern alteration, was lifted from parts of the original design.

The original (non-structural) frame-within-a-frame design.
The original (non-structural) frame-within-a-frame design.
In the light well, new openings cut into the brick shear wall were denoted by the frame-in-frame treatment.
In the light well, new openings cut into the brick shear wall were denoted by the frame-in-frame treatment.

Strengthening the main performance spaces was trickier. Of necessity, these rooms are high-ceilinged and large, and, designed for natural light, their walls have many openings, separated by slender columns. Out-of-plane loading would wreck them. But the walls are beautiful inside and out, and the spaces are well-beloved and well-known in their current form. Structural enhancements had to be invisible.

The wall of the Great Hall. The curtains cover large windows--note the slender piers between openings.
The wall of the Great Hall. The curtains cover large windows–note the slender piers between openings.
George explains the design solution underneath the gallery which conceals the truss.
George explains the design solution underneath the gallery which conceals the truss.

In the Great Hall, the solution was obvious—once someone had thought of it. A gallery runs around three sides of the room, providing extra seating. It was easily large enough to conceal a gigantic U-shaped horizontal truss, which provides stiffness to resist lateral movement of the weak outer walls. A plywood diaphragm hidden in the ceiling cavity tied the tops of the walls together. In the somewhat smaller Concert Chamber, the gallery is small too, and it doesn’t extend around three sides of the room. With no opportunity to conceal a truss, the strengthening in the Concert Chamber took the form of reinforced concrete columns inserted into 400×400 slots cut into the wall—or, in one case, cut right through the wall and out into the weather (Oamaru stone is pretty soft!). As part of the refit, air conditioning was inserted into the walls, and the vents are partially hidden by the decorative plasterwork.

Air conditioning vents between plaster corbels, Concert Chamber. The steelwork is inserted into the columns between the windows.
Air conditioning vents between plaster corbels, Concert Chamber. The steelwork is inserted into the columns between the windows.

 OUT OF THE FRYING PAN, INTO THE FOYER

 For a number of years, prior to the restoration project, the floor tiles in the foyer often exploded. This alarming phenomenon was at first put down to excessive compaction caused by floor buffing machines, but the installation of a sprinkler system into the concrete slab on which the tiles sat revealed the true problem. The reinforcing bars in the slab were in the wrong place—the lower bar sitting far too close to the top surface. What was causing the tiles to explode was the floor slabs deflecting under the weight of concertgoers: alarming indeed! Thankfully, none of the floors failed, but many of the tiles, under strong compression, did.

The problem for the design team was how to support the floors without changing the proportions of the spaces, since there is nowhere to hide any supplementary structure. The deflection was reduced by adding carbon fibre strips to the underside of the floors—likely the first time that this material had been used for structural repair in NZ. With the floors strengthened, a repair job had to be done on the tiles.

The tiled floors of the foyer. Floors extend over two levels. In the centre, the round tile is an encaustic tile, stained orange by the acid bath. The square brown tiles are original--I think!
The tiled floors of the foyer. Floors extend over two levels. In the centre, the round tile is an encaustic tile, stained orange by the acid bath. The square brown tiles in this photo are original–I think!

The fanciest tiles, made with a light-coloured slip poured into a relief-moulded dark-coloured base (encaustic tiles), came through OK, barring some orange stains caused by an overzealous acid bleaching. But the plain, square, brown tiles which cover the greatest part of the floor were seemingly impossible to source: they couldn’t be bought, and, scour the world though they might, the team could not find a manufacturer capable of exactly matching the original colour, given an understandable reluctance on the part of modern potters to use lead oxide in their glazing. All seemed lost—until one day, a project manager from the Town Hall team had lunch at a well-known franchise restaurant specialising in Scottish food. To his utter astonishment, the kitchen tiles at McD’s appeared to be an exact match, and he nearly earned himself a cell next to the Hamburglar by bursting unannounced into the restaurant kitchen with his tape measure get the exact size of them. To cut a long story short—the tiles matched matched perfectly, and McD’s eventually agreed to give the Town Hall enough of their custom-made tiles to repair the floors.

In a similar spirit of desire for perfection, George mentioned several other examples of the lengths to which the project team went to get as close to the original design as possible, including scraping the walls painstakingly to find the original wall colour (not to be mistaken for the colour of the primer or the basecoat). They trawled through archival pictures to find the patterns of the original leadlight windows. Of course, the pictures are in black-and-white, but the glass colours were revealed by the discovery of one large window, which had literally been rolled up and stashed away. Picture the restorers hunting in a dark basement for scraps of coloured glass. That’s dedication.

 A TICKING TIME BOMB?

The clock tower rises above the administrative offices of the Town Hall.
The clock tower rises above the administrative offices of the Town Hall.

On Monday’s tour, George willingly expressed his “diffidence” over the threat that earthquakes pose to Auckland’s buildings. He qualified his position to the extent of saying that the risk is non-zero—and with a non-zero risk in mind, the clock tower on the southern end of the Town Hall presented a serious engineering challenge. It’s extremely heavy, and being taller than the adjoining structure, it would have a different period under earthquake acceleration.

The exposed steel frame in an upper storey of the clock tower. Note the steel rods running across the window instead of solid beams.
The exposed steel frame in an upper storey of the clock tower. Note the steel rods running across the window instead of solid beams.
In the storey below, the exposed steel frame (white) joins up with steel inserted into the walls (grey). In lower (public) floors, the steel strips are hidden in the walls.
In the storey below, the exposed steel frame (white) joins up with steel inserted into the walls (grey). In lower (public) floors, the steel strips are hidden in the walls.

The initial design solution, a steel framework inside the tower designed to hold the tower up, was rejected—by George. It would have dramatically altered the staircase below it, which winds up to the council offices. George’s name was mud among the engineering team for some weeks, until an alternative solution occurred: why not hold the tower down, instead of up? This developed into a solid steel frame, in the upper tower; connected to cross bracing cut into the walls, in the storey below the steel frame; connected to thin steel strips inserted into the walls of the stairwell, and anchored into the foundations. These steel strips are 200×19 galvanised steel flats, sitting in 270×120 slots packed with a Denso felt, and tensioned. This holds the tower together, using the tension in the steel against the crush strength of the masonry, but doesn’t eliminate the possibility of swaying. In addition to the post-tensioning, then, a transfer truss connects the tower to the top of the longitudinal walls of the Town Hall, holding it fast. The truss is hidden under a sloping roof. One final touch—in the clock tower, where the steel frame sits, instead of steel cross-members going over the windows, the bracing consists of four 40mm steel bars, painted in a dark colour. You’ll see it (at night) now that you know it’s there, but it’s far less noticeable than steel beams would be—seen out of the corner of your eye, you might pass it off as a mere apparition.

 FURTHER READING

There’s a really lovely post on the Timespanner blog with some great archival images of the construction of the Town Hall.

I also sent site visitors a link to Downer Senior Engineer Mark Hedley’s 2014 paper on the strengthening of five major civic buildings in Auckland.

 THANKS

 With sincere thanks to George Farrant, redoubled since he generously agreed to host a second tour in the face of extremely high demand. For he’s a jolly good fellow, and so say all of us.