Church tested for earthquake safety

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EQStruc engineers Aden Younan, Dmytro Dizhur and Rod Stokes on site this week performing a thorough inspection of St Mary’s Church.
EQStruc engineers Aden Younan, Dmytro Dizhur and Rod Stokes on site this week performing a thorough inspection of St Mary’s Church.

After its doors were closed more than two years ago, there is now hope on the horizon for Waipukurau's St Mary's Church.

The church was closed by the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Waiapu at Easter 2014 because it was earthquake prone, after an initial evaluation rated the building as 13 per cent compliant with the new building standard.

The standard requires action to be taken if a building is less than 34 per cent compliant.
Since the church's closure, St Mary's congregation has been holding its services in the church hall.

"That has meant a lot of putting out and packing up of seating, and it isn't a sought-after venue for weddings and funerals," says parishioner Alan Sutherland, "St Mary's is a great building, no cracks in the foundations. It's a Waipukurau icon and it would be lovely to see it open again."

Six months ago the diocese approved the formation of the St Mary's Earthquake Action Sub-Committee, to investigate what needs to be done to make the church compliant, and what it could cost.

An initial barrier to knowing what the church needs is that all records of how it was originally designed and built have been lost.

At the time the church was built, in 1929, the architect - a Mr WP Finch of Napier - wanted to make it steel lined and earthquake-proof. The vicar, Canon Rice, was not keen for the extra expense. Now, nobody knows who won the debate, as the building plans lodged with the Diocese of Waiapu were lost in the fire that broke out after Hawke's Bay earthquake.

The plans lodged with the Waipukurau District Council also met with disaster, destroyed in a flood in 1936 when the waters of the Tukituki River reached as far as Ruataniwha St. St Mary's - built of bricks made in Waipawa - survived the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake with just a slight crack in the tower, and the lectern and font fell over.

Now, the only way to find out if there is steel in the walls or metal ties between the brick layers is to carry out a Detailed Seismic Assessment (DSA).

Alan Sutherland, spokesperson for the St Mary's Earthquake Action Sub-Committee, says while the building is not listed with the Historic Places Trust, the committee contacted the trust for advice. This, along with information from four engineering consultants who visited the site, consultation with others in a similar situation and "a lot of hard work by a small committee" led to a call for tenders for a detailed assessment.

Auckland engineering firm EQStruc was engaged.

EQStruc was one of the firms recommended by the Historic Places Trust, says Alan, for their knowledge of historical buildings' construction and their understanding of earthquake-strengthening techniques in New Zealand and overseas.

"Three of their engineers were on site this Tuesday, taking detailed measurements, scanning the walls and carrying out other tests. Their report will produce computer-aided drawings, review the current NBS rating for the church in light of the additional data collected and will provide design models which would enable strengthening to two different acceptable NBS levels, 34 per cent and 67 per cent."

Funds remaining in a bequest from the late Melvie Hartley are being used for the assessment and the results should be available mid-November.

"Once the final NBS grading and the expected cost of any seismic upgrading are known, we can start to fundraise towards getting this landmark building strengthened and open again," Alan says.

"It has been an intriguing project so far and after three years in limbo we feel we have turned a corner. We will soon know if the church has the steel in the walls that Mr Finch wanted, or if Canon Rice had his way."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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