Red X iconGreen tick iconYellow tick icon

A better future …

Staff and students at the University of Otago, Christchurch move back into their earthquake-strengthened building in time for the 40th anniversary celebrations.

It's hard for Professor Peter Joyce to describe the past two years.

As Dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch campus, he has overseen two of the most turbulent years in the campus' 40-year history.

Now, as staff and students return to something resembling normality thanks to the completion of major repairs on the main Christchurch building, he says this month's anniversary celebrations will look forward to a better future in several respects.

The first Canterbury earthquake in September 2010 caused the demolition of one building the University leased, St Elmo Courts, dislodging the staff from Public Health and General Practice. It also damaged three houses used for accommodation, making them temporarily unavailable.

But the University's main, 10-level, building at 2 Riccarton Road, which houses about half the staff and much of the teaching spaces for Otago, suffered only minor damage.

The February earthquake was a different story.

All University buildings were evacuated, two staff lost family members and many others faced the loss of their homes, injuries to loved ones and disruption to all their lives.

“The Christchurch campus is an extremely important part of the University of Otago and I have been impressed by the dedication and the flexibility of all those involved, both in Christchurch and in Dunedin, to get us up and running again.” – Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne.

The teaching year had only just begun and Joyce recalls staff and students were suddenly spread far and wide as an ongoing search for suitable accommodation was necessary.

“I think there were 28 leases needed in the end as we moved and then, sometimes, moved again.”

Researchers were kindly accepted at both Canterbury and Lincoln Universities, as well as a private company (Canterbury Scientific Ltd) and in local rented warehouse space.

Some departments worked from staff homes in the immediate aftermath.

Students were taught in a golf club, a cricket club … even the local Philatelic Society.

Despite being under pressure and working in tough conditions, both staff and students continued to excel, Joyce says.

“Fourth- and fifth-year medical students from here averaged exactly the same results as in Dunedin and Wellington in common exams – I think they bonded together in the circumstances.”

As the new year begins and the campus prepares for its 40th anniversary celebrations this month, Joyce finds he can't single out any one person to thank.

“I would thank all staff and students for getting though this difficult period of time.

“There are too many to thank individually – all of whom have faced the same struggles at work and at home. I think they should all be thanked.”

Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne agrees.

“I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to all the academic and general staff on our Christchurch campus. They have delivered a full medical curriculum over two difficult years and they have continued to excel in research. I find it hard to believe that they have accomplished so much under such adverse conditions.

“The Christchurch campus is an extremely important part of the University of Otago and I have been impressed by the dedication and the flexibility of all those involved, both in Christchurch and in Dunedin, to get us up and running again.”

Otago Health Sciences Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Crampton says it has been “an extraordinary journey for staff and students alike”.

“No one can be prepared for something like this by prior life experience. And, unlike most natural disasters, where, when the event occurs you can then re-establish a sense of order quite quickly, there have been more than 10,000 earthquakes in Christchurch. No one knows when they will end.”
Crampton says the effect that has on people's sense of security and the uncertain future is profound.

“Yet in the face of that, the staff and students showed a strength and a fortitude and an amazing sense of humour that to observe has been humbling and moving.”

The University is aware that journey is not yet over and Crampton says, while the reopening of the main building is a “hugely significant milestone”, there are still plans and developments to come.

“It's important our Christchurch people know we are in it for the long haul and they are a significant part of our operation.”

For the Dunedin-based Property Services Division, the restoration (now nearing completion) of full Christchurch services has been a “project unlike any other”, Property Services Director Barry Mackay says.“It's estimated the repairs will cost about $8 or $9 million so, monetarily, it wasn't our largest project. But in terms of the complexity of the task and the unknown – how to repair the damage – it was the most difficult thing we've ever had to do.”
The division had completed the minor repairs to the main building from the September earthquake – mostly cosmetic damage – and was halfway through fit-out of a new tenancy to replace St Elmo Courts when the February earthquake hit.

The main building, which was built in the 1970s, withstood the quake extremely well compared to other Christchurch buildings of a more modern era, but the damage was still substantial.

This was attributed to the main building's design being based around a strong central core structure. However, even with this strong design the damage was still significant.

The fit-outs in levels 3, 5 and 6 were particularly hard hit, as well as the stairwells.

Division Property Manager Jason Steed, who had started work only the month before the first quake, was suddenly thrust into managing the massive project.

His role involved not just the co-ordination of the construction, but finding buildings to lease and overseeing temporary relocation of staff, and dealing with staff concerns.

Luckily the University already had a construction team, Higgs Construction, on-site working on a new capital project, the Nicholls Clinical Research Centre, which will finally open this month during the anniversary celebrations.

The first priority for Property Services was to find spaces for staff to work and teach, and to obtain engineering reports assessing the damage and recommending solutions.

While the engineering reports were completed to allow a decision on how to strengthen the building to be made, the construction team started work on repairing cracks by injecting epoxy resin through 16,000 injection points, and demolishing and rebuilding stairwells.

By the beginning of 2012, a solution to strengthen the building was found.

Structural strengthening to the building involved wrapping floor beam connections with glass fibre polymer and lengthening structural walls.
To complete the work, the building core was stripped back to a skeleton state and later large sections of the fit-out on all floors were rebuilt, Mackay says.

The building now stands proudly at 120 per cent of the new building code standard and it's understood the building's structural design is considered a likely candidate for future construction in the city.

University Chief Operating Officer John Patrick says the result is a testament to the myriad of engineers, contractors, tradespeople and Property Services staff who worked tirelessly to accommodate staff and repair the building.

“It was a fantastic effort by all involved.”

By the end of February this year almost all staff will be back in the main building, although it will take up to five years to have all Christchurch staff out of temporary accommodation.

Professor Tony Kettle, from the Centre for Free Radical Research, says it is wonderful to be back in their labs and in contact with scientific and medical colleagues again.

“Our team all pitched in to ensure we were re-established in record time. We'd like to thank all the people who have worked hard over the last couple of years to ensure that we could move back into top class laboratories.”

Joyce admits the events of the past two years will flavour the 40th celebrations, which will focus on “talking about a better future ahead…”

“I think both in terms of where we have come in the past 40 years, and on another level, since the earthquakes.”

The three-day anniversary will include the formal opening of the Nicholls Clinical Research Centre, public lectures and science sessions, as well as a formal dinner.

It will also feature, finally, the lecture of Professor David Fergusson, who won the University's Distinguished Researcher Medal two years ago and has yet to mark the occasion.

Back to top