'Christchurch's rebuild could take decades'

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Clara Caponi, a seismic engineer, moved to Christchurch six months ago to work on the rebuild project. Photo supplied by Carla Caponi.
12:35 CET+01:00
In February 2011, a devastating earthquake struck the New Zealand city of Christchurch, killing 185 people. Since then, an army of engineers from around the world has been working on the rebuild. The Local speaks to Italian seismic engineer Clara Caponi, who joined the team earlier this year, about the challenges of restoring the city and ensuring its long-term safety.

How did you get the job working on the restoration of Christchurch? Had you had much experience of similar work in Italy?

I knew that there were lots of opportunities for seismic engineers in Christchurch following the earthquakes. I submitted my CV and then attended a job expo in London which showcased overseas work opportunities. I had an initial interview with Opus International Consultants at the expo, which went well, and then I continued the job application process via Skype. I moved to Christchurch about six months ago.

After graduating with an MSc in Earthquake Engineering from the ROSE School in Pavia I worked as a seismic engineer for Studio Ingegneria in Parma for 4.5 years. I specialised in the design and structural retrofitting of complex structures such as hospitals, cultural heritage buildings and universities.

One of the main projects I am currently working on for Opus is the restoration of the Sacred Heart Church in Timaru. The severe earthquake damage to Christchurch’s Anglican and Catholic cathedrals has left Timaru’s basilica as one of the most important examples of religious architecture in the Canterbury region, so it is vital to strengthen and restore this building for future generations to enjoy.

What are the similarities/differences between this kind of work and working on heritage buildings in Italy?

In Italy, we have more national authorities so the consent process for restoration work is quite complex. The consent process in New Zealand is a lot quicker and more streamlined.

This is likely due to the impact of the earthquakes and the sheer volume of consents which need to be processed in a timely manner to keep the pace of the rebuild moving along. The buildings are much older in Italy so the materials are different and we tend to use non-intrusive restoration techniques.

The Christchurch Central City Recovery Plan has set out the future shape of the city, so we need to keep this in mind when carrying out restoration work.

What exactly does the process of restoration in Christchurch involve?

It is very complex as 80 percent of Christchurch’s central business district was destroyed by the February 2011 earthquake and the central city was cordoned off for over two and a half years. Imagine a city the size of Florence with almost all of its central city area destroyed and you get an idea of the scale of the disaster. In addition many areas of the eastern suburbs have now been red-zoned and these areas will be turned into parks/reserves. The city has been redefined and the central business district will be a lot smaller than it was before.

All of these factors mean that the progress of repair and restoration is a long-term process. We need to consider various factors such as the ground conditions, urban design and strengthening methods before carrying out any work.

How much of Christchurch will be able to be restored? Will it be very similar to what it was before or are any major changes being made?

Some buildings will be able to be restored but this depends on a variety of factors such as repair costs, the value of the building and urban design regulations. In some cases we will completely restore the building and in other cases we will preserve heritage facades and construct a new building behind the facade.

Christchurch will be a modern seismically-designed city which contains important heritage elements. It will be interesting to see how the old and the new blend together. I think the city will be quite different to how it was before. The various precincts which are being created along with anchor projects such as the Avon River Park will make the city a vibrant and exciting place to live. I really enjoy living in an evolving city which is combining elements of the past and future into a very dynamic blend. 

Is it possible to strengthen the buildings so they would be more protected from any future earthquakes?

All buildings must meet the seismic strength codes put in place by the government after the earthquake. Many owners are choosing to strengthen their buildings to over 100 percent of the code requirements.

How big is the project – how many people are working on it and how long is it expected to take?

The rebuild of Christchurch is a $40 million project. Opus has 350 people working full-time on the residential and commercial rebuild. This includes people from all over the world with specialist skills – particularly those with seismic experience. It is really exciting to be working with people from many different countries including Greece, England, Ireland, Australia, Russia, Japan and China. It is a very vibrant atmosphere to be working in and I am relishing the experience. The timeframe depends on many factors including insurance settlements, planning regulations and the consultation process. It is expected to take decades to fully rebuild the city.

What are the biggest challenges of the job?

Language and communication issues. While I feel quite confident speaking English, writing up formal reports can be difficult when you are using your second language. I have already seen a great improvement in my English though as I am using it 24/7. I have also been learning a new system as New Zealand buildings and structures are quite different to those in Italy.

I am really enjoying the opportunity to take on a more senior role in projects. As there aren’t as many seismic engineers in New Zealand, I have many opportunities that I would not have in Italy. Being given a higher level of responsibility is an exciting challenge for me.

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What are the risks, to workers and to the buildings?

Ongoing earthquakes – we still get small shakes every now and then. Opus has an excellent health and safety training programme so I feel that I am safe at all times. If a building isn’t deemed safe to enter I carry out a visual inspection and then examine site drawings etc.

How does it feel being able to see, and be such a big part of, the town being brought back to life? How will you feel when the work is done?

It’s very exciting. I never dreamed that I would be part of recreating a city and it is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. I feel like I am part of a community and that we are all working to achieve the same positive outcomes. It is very rewarding to be part of such a valuable project and I am sure that the work I am doing now will have a great impact on my life both now and in the future. I feel proud to be part of this exciting rebuild effort.

Have you had any reaction from the local community?

I have had lots of positive feedback from Christchurch residents. They are so grateful to have people from overseas relocating here to help rebuild their city. When I tell people what I am doing they are always so welcoming and I truly feel like I am part of the local community now. It feels really wonderful to be helping to build a brighter future for Canterbury.

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