Christchurch Rebuild: Putting the pieces back together

By Alexander Speirs

Fletcher EQR director Michelle Creagh talks to Alexander Speirs about the huge repair job.

Michelle Creagh.
Michelle Creagh.

"This is unlike any other project we've ever done," says Michelle Creagh, Managing Director of Fletcher Earthquake Recovery. "It's not something that New Zealand has experience in dealing with - earthquakes of that magnitude let alone the rebuild required."

Getting the repairs programme started and under way was one of the most difficult challenges faced by Fletcher. The scale of the operation was the first task to overcome.

Once Fletcher was announced as the successful project manager for the Canterbury Home Repair Programme, a number of people were seconded from other activities.

"That was a challenge in itself really, to extract resources from any operation has a cost to that operation, but of course it was all necessary," says Creagh.

"Our intention has always been to make sure we have local Cantabrians working on the programme because I think that's helpful in terms of their commitment to the project and it is certainly something Fletcher as a brand can be seen giving back to the community by creating jobs.

"A project team was created and outside people were brought in just to get it moving. You start in a place where you're in crisis and the priority is managing day-to-day issues after earthquakes, which is far different from where we're at today."

From there it has evolved substantially over the past three years.

So far 52,000 substantial repairs, 48,000 emergency repairs and 19,000 chimney replacements (which in many cases is a heat pump installation) have all been completed.

Says Creagh: "Because of the nature of the programme and how it's been planned and delivered as it's progressed, one feature has been that targets have evolved. We know where we need to be and we're managing to those targets."

When it first got under way, the project was estimated to entail 50,000 houses at $25,000 a repair. But the rolling aftershocks took a toll and the workload escalated to be possibly as high as 100,000 houses at $35,000 each.

Creagh says there were further challenges as EQC had to assess the claims, match claims to eliminate duplications and figure out which claims need to be settled in alternate ways.

"The need to move as quickly as possible while also delivering on quality, and the need to ensure that the money and resources available to the programme are used with care were both challenges," Creagh adds. "These are major priorities that homeowners, workers, taxpayers and the other stakeholders in the programme expect to be delivered.

"As a company we have needed to work with other entities - particularly our client EQC - each of which has its own challenges and priorities. It has been a unique experience for all concerned."

Environmental factors contributed to uncertainty, making the ability to adapt integral to the success of the project. The team was already dealing with continuing aftershocks prior to the second major earthquake.

"It was definitely compounded by the February 2011 quake, which obviously magnified the damage and the social stress," says Creagh. "They also created a massive requirement for emergency repairs and particularly for the repair or replacement of chimneys, often through the installation of heat pumps so people wouldn't go cold over winter.

"Both of these were major programmes in their own right."

The significant resources required for those projects meant substantive repairs didn't get under way until late in 2011, because of the compounding effect of the February 2011 earthquake.

Creagh indicates that because Fletcher EQR was up and running quickly, it didn't face too much competition for resources such as skilled tradesmen. "I don't think there's been too much competition as we've been by far the leaders in terms of getting out and getting started. The other project offices weren't under way and we were able to attract some high-quality resources."

Some roles were more challenging to fill and these extend to today with very specific roles are required as the end of the project nears.

"Some of the subcontracts are becoming more challenging as the market starts to pick up, but we've managed ourselves pretty well in that area. In fact, one of the significant benefits around the project has been our ability to manage inflationary pressures - and that's been a success story for the whole community."

Holding inflation was seen as a major achievement, as there was a risk for there to be an inflationary creep in the labour market if a programme like EQR didn't emerge. "We've got the right people in the right place at the right cost, which benefited against inflationary labour pressure."

The Canterbury Home Repair Programme is set to wrap up at the end of this year, with an estimated 72,500 homes having been repaired.

"We've got about 20,000 houses to do between now and the end of the year. We know where we need to land and we like that number," says Creagh.

The hub-structure EQR implemented has been a major factor in the programme's success.

"There's nothing globally that we've seen that we can compare this to. It's a model that has worked here," says Creagh. "There would have been no other way to manage a project of this scale."

There are now six area-specific hubs with an average staff of about 120 each. Six months ago there were as many as 21 smaller hubs but a "mammoth" restructuring has seen them compressed.

"Over time they've certainly become far more consistent in the way in which they're managed and deal with the homeowners," says Creagh. "It requires suppliers to think differently about what some of the solutions might be in terms of even thinking about fixing housing stock. I think Christchurch certainly has some stories to tell about innovation and adaptability."

As a secondary benefit, Creagh points to the visible presence of the hubs within the community being a positive. Those affected by the home repair programme are able to talk with someone and find out how their own situation is progressing.

"The real story is that the various challenges, along with the extraordinary volume of work put in place, have been met through the efforts of dedicated people who wanted to make their contribution to putting things right after the earthquakes.

"The goodwill and co-operation of others particularly our repair customers has been a critical element."

Safety drill

There has been a concerted drive to improve the health and safety culture for contractors and tradespeople working on repairs to Christchurch homes damaged by the earthquakes.

Fletcher EQR and EQC committed substantial resources to improve the safety performance of the residential construction and repair sector. The sector has a high proportion of small and independent contractors, many of whom had not previously worked under rigorous safety controls.

Many had a low perception of risk, aversion to investment in safety and a low acceptance of compliance measures.

The programme has targeted a long-term behavioural change and shift in attitudes towards safety.

Among measures:

• An initial review of safety performance as part of the accreditation process

• Mandatory project and safety inductions for contractors

• Compulsory engagement of safety specialists to ensure standards are met

• Compulsory safety courses for contractors

• Compulsory safety inductions for contractor staff

• Preparation of a Site Specific Safety Plan for each repair contract

• Preparation of a Task Analysis where a specific danger exists.

These measures are supplemented by frequent communication on risks, incidents and other topics of relevance to staff and contractors. A separate agenda which focused on six potentially fatal risks - known as safe6 - addresses:

• Falls from height

• Working in confined or restricted spaces

• Electrical danger

• Using motor vehicles

• Personal threat

• Asbestos exposure

Fletcher EQR

• Fletcher EQR won the tender for the Canterbury Home Repair Programme, which is responsible for managing the repair of properties where the damage falls between $15,000 and $100,000.

• Fletcher EQR, a business unit of New Zealand's largest listed company Fletcher Building, was established following the September 2010 Canterbury earthquake.

Michelle Creagh

Michelle Creagh came to Fletcher EQR in early 2014, taking over from David Peterson.

Previously she was General Manager of Fletcher's Golden Bay Cement, the country's largest cement manufacturer.

"This is my home town so this is really important to me personally. But really it's no different from running any other business because the same principles apply, there's just different challenges to work through operationally and then some of the strategic challenges which may arise.

"Every day is different. There's never a dull day. We've got highly committed individuals here and I've been really impressed by that. The number of people who are fully engaged and want to deliver on the commitments we made is really positive.''

- NZ Herald

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