City churches facing 'double nightmare'

Stuart Young
Stuart Young
As various religious denominations make plans to have the structural strength of their historic Dunedin churches assessed, some are already preparing for the worst.

One minister has described the costs of the likely strengthening work required on many old Dunedin churches, coming on top of hikes in insurance costs for churches as a "double nightmare".

Under its new earthquake-prone building policy, the Dunedin City Council has sent letters to owners requiring the strength of all pre-1976 non-residential buildings in the city to be assessed within two years.

If buildings were below strength, owners would be given between 15 and 30 years to have the buildings brought up to a required standard.

Selwyn Yeoman
Selwyn Yeoman
Church representatives contacted yesterday said most of the city's church buildings, including the major historic churches, had yet to be assessed, although plans were being made to begin the work.

If buildings are found to have a seismic strength below 34% of current building code and are considered earthquake-prone, owners will be issued a notice by council requiring the building strength be brought up to code requirements.

That work is widely expected to be prohibitive for parishes, which, particularly in the south, own dozens of historic buildings constructed from materials, including stone, considered to be particularly at risk from earthquakes.

The Anglican Diocese of Otago and Southland and the Presbyterian Synod of Otago and Southland said parishes in their areas would be contacted in the next few months and asked to get assessments done on their buildings.

Dunedin Catholic Diocese general manager Stuart Young said a structural engineer was already assessing the big Catholic churches of the diocese, including St Joseph's Cathedral, St Patrick's Basilica, St Bernadette's (Dunedin), Holy Cross College (Mosgiel), St Patrick's Basilica (Oamaru), The Irish Martyrs (Cromwell) and St Mary's (Invercargill). Others would be done by 2014.

The diocese expected to receive the completed reports for the major churches by the end of the year.

Superintendent Presbyter of the Dunedin parish of the Methodist Church Rev Siosifa Pole said the Methodist Church of New Zealand was organising assessments of Methodist churches in Dunedin.

It had already issued a notice to parishes instructing them that any building found to be at risk from an earthquake was to be vacated and not used until it was confirmed safe, or strengthened to 67% of current building code.

The Rev Selwyn Yeoman, of the Presbyterian Coastal Unity parish in Caversham, said churches were struggling not only with hikes in insurance, but other bills for maintenance and the like on buildings that were often more than 100 years old.

His parish of 230 people was already facing a $500,000 bill for maintenance and waterproofing on the grade-1 listed historic Caversham Presbyterian Church, even before it had the church assessed for structural strength.

Any costs for strengthening would be on top of that.

"The nightmare becomes a double nightmare."

The parish was actively trying to work out its options, but all, even the most traditionalist parishioners, had already agreed they must not rule out anything, including sale or demolition.

They had already discussed how they might reuse the important elements of the building, for example, the stained glass windows.


Who owns the reports!

As the council do not own these reports (the owner has to pay for them) they cannot possibly publish them.

When 'one size fits all' doesn't make sense

I can see another wave of the 'one-size-fits-all' mentality taking hold, as it is the best Governments of past years have been able to come up with.
Some parts of New Zealand, due to their geological make-up, are notably less prone to earthquake risk than others. Dunedin is particularly well situated in that regard, I believe. Many buildings in Dunedin are at far more risk of falling down through general neglect, than any particular earthquake risk.
Therefore money should be spent first in the areas where there is a genuine risk of earthquakes, instead of blanket regulations requiring buildings at low risk to have money spent on them urgently. Those at low risk should go to the back of the priority queue, to make way for work which is of some urgency.
Most at risk, undoubtedly, is Wellington, our capital, but also at considerable risk is the central portion of the North Island, due to seismic activity. A catastrophic quake or volcanic eruption (and in the final analysis it won't much matter which), is long overdue for the Lake Taupo region, and, remember, the last 'big-one' created the lake.
And, whoever it was who decided to site the country's capital over two active fault lines (take a look even at the TV weather-map photos for proof) really wasn't onto his/her game. [Abridged]

Let's just take a moment

Its these types of articles that are abundant in certain Christchurch newspapers which continue to add to the ill-informed hysteria that is connected with the sesimic vulnerability of heritage buildings.

The New Zealand public needs to take stock, take some deep breaths and find a positive way to negoitiate the continued and future use of our built heritage assests. 

The Government also needs to intervene with the insurance companies and stop the persecution of heritage building owners. Seismically strengthning heritage buildings should incurr imediate tax incentives and be free of GST. 

Otherwise Dunedin and many other towns will quickly mirror the souless and empty cityscape of Christchurch's CBD.


Heritage doom and gloom

The tone of some recent articles such as this one seems too doom-laden, especially as some central government assistance for strengthening earthquake-prone buildings still seems likely to come through.
I'm alarmed to see the Caversham Presbyterian Church at the point of dicussing re-use of features such as stained glass windows. Demolishing this Category I historic place (that's the highest category) would be beyond the pale.
While there are many churches in Dunedin, few are as significant as this one and there will be an enormous stink if demolition becomes the congregation's preferred choice.

Structual reports

Will the council make these structural reports available to the public? We need to know what buildings to avoid!

Each building should display at its entrance a code letter like the food supply industry has.

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