• 224 buildings investigated
• King's, Auckland Grammar Diocesan face repairs
• Takapuna Grammar block water damaged

Work has begun on some of New Zealand's most historic school buildings as the Government scrambles to work out by next month which are at high risk in an earthquake.

Strengthening is already under way at Auckland Grammar, Diocesan School for Girls and King's College, which are among hundreds of schools with buildings under examination in response to the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

Diocesan is half-way through its $1.26 million chapel strengthening, and King's will stagger work on its main administration building, chapel and oldest classroom building.

Discussions are also under way at Takapuna Grammar over water damage and deterioration in the red brick edifice, tower and high parapets of its landmark main block (widely photographed a few weeks ago when a banner of former pupil Lorde was flown celebrating her Grammy success).


The Ministry of Education has set up a special team of expert engineers to carry out the seismic upgrades over the next five years and $81 million has been set aside for the work.

Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye told the Weekend Herald that the 224 buildings, many containing unreinforced masonry, could be prone to earthquake damage and engineers hoped to have them assessed by the middle of next month.

Buildings at Wellington East College, Ngaio School and Patea Area School (Taranaki) had been vacated and some at South Wellington Intermediate and Newtown School had been pulled down.

Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O'Connor said the school board of trustees was in talks with the ministry on seismic reports on aspects of the main block and "The Taj" toilet block.

"The strengthening project of the 1990s has resulted in the main block still being fit to occupy when judged against today's building standards."

Strengthening older buildings is often a delicate job that can cost millions.

King's headmaster Bradley Fenner said the chapel and administration building were safe enough that they did not need to be vacated immediately, but their historic nature meant the jobs would carry significant costs.

"Things like any parapets on buildings or chimneys need to be secured ... We'll be moving through this programme over a number of years."

At Takapuna Grammar, a consultant's final report on the building will be available in mid-April. It had already been planned to vacate the building in stages for weathertightness repairs, so 10 relocatable classrooms had been purchased.

Diocesan School business & planning director Merle Boniface (L) and principal Heather McRae inside the chapel, which is being strengthened at a cost of $1.26m. Photo / Chris Gorman
Diocesan School business & planning director Merle Boniface (L) and principal Heather McRae inside the chapel, which is being strengthened at a cost of $1.26m. Photo / Chris Gorman

Acting Takapuna principal Brian Wynn referred questions on the water deterioration in the main block to the Ministry of Education.

Its head of infrastructure, Kim Shannon, said: "We have no concerns that the strength of the building presents a life safety risk to occupants.

"However, repairs done over the last school holidays showed some foundation brickwork which needs to be looked at further."

Secondary Principals' Association president Tom Parsons said the earthquake risk issue was major and affected schools nationwide.

The huge earthquake-strengthening bill comes as remediation work on hundreds of leaky school buildings carries on, with the full cost put at about $1.5 billion.

Ms Kaye said schools and their communities would be heavily involved in decisions on buildings that were often local landmarks.

"These are really important community assets, so we've got to get it right."

More than 90 per cent of school buildings are timber-framed, and Ms Kaye said the ministry's own testing had shown these were "more resilient than we ever imagined", which had saved millions of dollars.

John Hare, a director of Holmes Consulting Group, an occasional adviser to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and immediate past president of the Structural Engineering Society, said he knew many Aucklanders spurned a national building upgrade because they did not fear quakes.

"(But) all of New Zealand was pushed up out of the ocean by earthquakes and there's no such thing as a part of New Zealand that's not prone to earthquakes. That's how we got here."

Shaky buildings

• Some experts believe earthquake upgrades could cost more than leaky buildings.

• At least 193,000 properties are involved. The focus is on pre-1976 buildings.

• Schools are particularly at risk because many have seismically weak heritage buildings.