Vault held unwanted surprise for workers

A worker steam-cleans the Oamaru stone beside the tower. Photos: Gerard O'Brien.
A worker steam-cleans the Oamaru stone beside the tower. Photos: Gerard O'Brien.
The upgraded courthouse is scheduled to reopen in January 2018.
The upgraded courthouse is scheduled to reopen in January 2018.
Installing an under-floor slab is a key part of the seismic strengthening being undertaken.
Installing an under-floor slab is a key part of the seismic strengthening being undertaken.
Ministry of Justice Spokesman Matt Torbit.
Ministry of Justice Spokesman Matt Torbit.
The judge's bench and jury box have been covered while work progresses.
The judge's bench and jury box have been covered while work progresses.
Construction staff have been careful to maintain the historic integrity of the building.
Construction staff have been careful to maintain the historic integrity of the building.

The rebuild of Dunedin’s historic courthouse is in full swing. Project manager Jeff Halmshaw this week  guided the Otago Daily Times through the 115-year-old building. Rob Kidd reports.

When construction staff ripped into Dunedin's old courthouse during its $20million upgrade they found a vault that was not noted in any building plans.

The underground safe was locked from the front but they discovered a trapdoor into it.

What secrets and treasures did it hold?

''Just spiders and rat droppings,'' project manager Jeff Halmshaw said.

This week, he guided the Otago Daily Times through the dusty plywood, dangling wires and safety cones that is the lower Stuart St court rebuild.

After nearly seven months of work, Mr Halmshaw reckoned they were nearly halfway there and still on track for completion by January next year when court services are set to resume.

Though there were no gold bars or scandalous judge's memoirs in the underground vault, the structure had some surprises for builders.

And not all of them were welcome.

''The biggest surprise was the amount of asbestos,'' Mr Halmshaw said. "We knew there was some, but not to that extent . . . it was everywhere.''

Specialist removal teams have been working their way through the premises, sealing off areas and testing air quality.

Overall though, Mr Halmshaw said the grand old structure was ''in good nick''.

He should know, having worked on courthouse upgrades at Masterton and Manukau.

Most of the internal work to date had focused on structural strengthening, and stabilisation work on the ground beneath the tower had finished.

Geotechnical reports showed the land was susceptible to liquefaction in the event of an earthquake and ''grout-injection piling'' and been used, with 20 cement columns installed beneath the tower to a depth of 15.5m.

Exterior refurbishment was also under way.

Oamaru stone was being steam-cleaned, but Mr Halmshaw said the Port Chalmers stone used on the building required a more delicate approach to protect it from disintegration.

The repair of windows was a fragile process and the project manager said special glass from the United States was used in some areas.

''It's not historic but it's as close as we can get,'' Mr Halmshaw said.

The final 5% of asbestos will be removed in the next few months, while under-floor slabs will be installed beneath courtrooms one and three.

The tower will be bolstered with internal steel reinforcement.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Matt Torbit said work carried out by Amalgamated Builders would strengthen the courthouse to 60-70% of the new building standard, as well as enhancing audio-visual capabilities, security and CCTV coverage.

And Mr Halmshaw confirmed there would be no need for a spiritual cleansing of the building.

''There are no ghosts,'' he said.

rob.kidd@odt.co.nz

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