Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild shattered city

By Jennifer Dann

Rowenna Walker. Photo / Supplied
Rowenna Walker. Photo / Supplied

The starting gun has sounded. With its blueprint now launched, Christchurch is on track for recovery. It's a time of excitement and challenge for civil engineers like Rowenna Walker of leading international projects firm Sinclair Knight Merz.

Walker manages SKM's Buildings and Infrastructure business in New Zealand - a team of more than 100 people in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The 39-year-old has had a hands-on role in Christchurch as a project director on the Structural Engineering Assessment panel for Christchurch City Council, looking at building damage caused by the quakes.

SKM is also part of the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team, responsible for rebuilding the city's horizontal infrastructure, such as water and sewerage pipes.

Walker says the city's Recovery Plan, released on July 30 by Canterbury Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee, provided a way forward for planners, designers and engineers.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild a city. To actually start from scratch. There's a lot of people in New Zealand and overseas buoyed by that and wanting to be part of it."

"The process has been really good in terms of the consultation - pooling all the ideas to come up with something that fits the purpose for Christchurch, now and in the future," she says.

The challenge is bringing the plan to fruition in such a concentrated environment. "There will be lots of co-ordination needed between stakeholders, designers and industry. But there is a plan, and the vast majority have bought into it. That's important."

The roll-out of work was outlined in a programme attached to the Recovery Plan. "The devil will be in the detail about how that can be staggered," she says. Complex funding issues need to be resolved, followed by lead-in time for design and planning. "These large infrastructure projects take time, but clearly the intention is to do things as soon as possible."

Some anchor projects will be suited to Public Private Partnership funding, she says. SKM has worked on successful PPP-funded hospital projects overseas and is currently working on New Zealand's first PPP, Wiri Prison.

A huge amount of work assessing damaged buildings has already been completed by the various Structural Engineering Assessment panels, now moving into a phase of recommending which buildings to strengthen and which to rebuild. "The majority of the strengthening work will start happening now. Some will be finished in a matter of months. But it's not all going to happen overnight. It will be over the next five, possibly 10 years."

Extensive underground infrastructure work has also been completed, despite continued earthquakes over the past 18 months.

New Zealand's infrastructure industry has the experience and capability to deliver most of the rebuild, she says. "We've got a very strong set of seismic structural engineers here in New Zealand. A lot of really highly skilled people like civil engineers and transport planners. There are experts we can tap into in Australia, Britain and US, but the bulk of the work will be done by our people here.

"Clearly there's a fantastic opportunity in social infrastructure. SKM could add value to a number of projects - hospitals and stadia in particular."

The firm has a broad international track record on stadia, with its own group of globe-trotting specialists advising on projects such as the London Olympics basketball and hand-ball stadia. SKM also delivered the Dunedin stadium.

Health is another capability. A new health precinct laid out in the blueprint includes two sites for development. "We've delivered some huge hospital projects overseas. So we're in a good position to draw on some of the innovation and lessons from those."

Walker acknowledges frustrations for industry members waiting at the tail end of the work pipeline. "I can see it's frustrating when you want to get going. But there is work going on at the front end and you do have to go through that planning process before you can get a spade in the ground."

The Recovery Plan's programme gives some guide to timeframes, but they are still funding-dependent. "I'm sure the likes of Hawkins and Fletchers are talking to the Government and asking those questions so they can align their resources."

Future-proofing is a crucial part of the planning process, she says.

"It's about really listening to the needs of the client and how that might change over time. Looking at ways to deliver an adaptable system within budget."

Health is being delivered very differently now due to technological change and ageing populations.

Building resilience in a seismic nation

Design code changes resulting from the Canterbury earthquakes have had a knock-on effect in Wellington, which has seen a huge increase in demand for structural assessments.

SKM New Zealand's Buildings and Infrastructure business manager, Rowenna Walker (pictured), says design codes have evolved considerably over time to remain seismically resilient.

"Wellington recognises that some of their assets might need to be reviewed in light of those seismic design changes," she says. The code is now "quite prescriptive" as to whether a building is viable to be repaired post-quake or whether it has to be rebuilt.

"As we've all been made aware recently, NZ is a geothermal and seismically active country. So if we want to live here, we've got to adapt to live in that environment. It's publicly recognised that Wellington sits on a fault and there is a statistical chance of an earthquake in future. But that goes for everywhere.

"The unpredictability of nature is the challenge for engineers. All we can do is look at trends and make assessments about what we think as a professional community. It's difficult to assess priorities when you're looking at a set of criteria that's unknown. After an event, people will always say in retrospect what you should have done. All you can do is work with the information that you have at the time."

Who is SKM?

International projects firm Sinclair Knight Merz has capability in strategic consulting, engineering more than 7000 staff across Asia-Pacific, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Formed in Sydney in 1964 as a private company, SKM is employee-owned, with fee income now greater than A$1 billion. As well as the company's work in Christchurch, SKM is working with Fletchers on the design of Wiri Prison, New Zealand's first large PPP.

The project, still in the early design phase, is on target to deliver within the timeframe set by the Government.

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