Editorial: Raising a roof ruckus

19:42, May 12 2014

Its profile may invoke the great pyramids of Giza, but the great pyramid of Invercargill doesn't have the same longevity prospects.

Constructed without the resource of whip-motivated slaves, the Southland Museum and Art Gallery roof, which so spectacularly dominated a 1990 rebuild, was presented as having the twin virtues of being comparatively cheap and certainly innovative in its use of polystyrene sandwiched between metal sheets.

Turns out there was a problem.

Recent headlines about the safety issues of this set-up - not so much that it's combustible, but that it's melty, fumey and really hard to extinguish - are more a reminder than a revelation.

The public was given warning as far back as 2011, when museum trust chairman Darren Ludlow made public advice from the Fire Service that it would probably not tackle a fire in the roof.

Perhaps it's only timely that the issue has been raised again, this time by ICC building assets and museum manager Paul Horner, given that last week's opening of the renovated Stadium Southland means the museum upgrade is now more emphatically back on the civic agenda.


For its part the Fire Service isn't exactly dancing with agitation about the roof.

Southern fire risk management officer Michael Cahill says it's unlikely a fire would spread to it because sprinklers and smoke detectors make it likely a fire could be contained long enough for firefighters to get to the scene.

We get the message. The odds aren't necessarily all that bad, but the museum trust and council are entitled to hammer the warning there's still a risk and the consequences would represent a cultural disaster.

In fact the council is highlighting not only the potential damage to the building and its oh-so-precious contents, but also the toxicity of the smoke that would issue.

Much as parts of Invercargill's stormwater system are being bedevilled by those late-1950s thin-walled Italian tiles, we are again facing a regrettably problematic consequence of using what, in its day, was regarded as innovative and clever.

A more fire retardant replacement polystyrene for the museum would cost $2 million, but this isn't a project that would exist in isolation. Far from it.

Since 2007 the museum has been proposed for a major renovation.

Initially put at an eye-watering $24.6million, this has been taken back to a much more modestly-proportioned drawing board - only to have impetus again confounded by not only the collapse of the stadium and a sudden imperative to replace it, but also by bad news about the museum's assessed risk from earthquakes.

The museum's deemed structurally safe enough for the trust to keep it open, but each of the four different parts of the entire structure require strengthening.

So far the museum upgrade just hasn't been able to catch a break.

The Southland Times