Blue chip earthquake blues

16:00, Feb 12 2011
Harcourts Grenadier CEO Rob McCormack, a long-time resident of Fendalton, below.

One of Christchurch's poshest suburbs was hard hit in the September 4 earthquake but you'd never know it from media coverage to date. Amanda Cropp reports on efforts to save and restore some of Fendalton's beautiful character homes.

FENDALTON RESIDENT Simon Robinson was one of the few serious casualties in the Canterbury earthquake when he was bombarded with bricks from a fallen chimney.

But other than reports on his injuries, the blue chip suburb stayed out of the headlines in the aftermath of the disaster as the media focused on the portaloo-ridden areas of Avonside, Bexley, Halswell and Kaiapoi.


Five days after the 7.1 magnitude shake, Auckland visitors stared in bewilderment asking "Earthquake? What earthquake?" as we drove down Fendalton Rd from the airport. That's because, in Fendalton, much of the damage is hidden down long driveways, behind tall fences and screened by the mature trees and lush gardens that are as much a trademark of the suburb as its whopping real estate prices.

As I researched this story a number of people claimed there was a conspiracy of silence among Fendaltonions eager to hush up the extent of the damage to protect property values, and one real estate agent even suggested there had been a media embargo on coverage.

Compared to other earthquake-stricken parts of the city, it's certainly harder to find residents prepared to openly talk about property damage, and that included local MP and Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, who declined to discuss his personal situation or that of Fendalton in general.


He has a property in Bradnor Rd where it is understood three homes may be pulled down and seven out of eight swimming pools were put out of action by the quake.

Long-time Fendalton resident Rob McCormack is the CEO of Harcourts Grenadier Christchurch and owns about 20 properties in Fendalton and neighbouring Merivale, virtually all damaged to varying degrees. In his view, Fendalton people "are just stoics, bravely soldiering on" and there's no effort to conceal the impact of the quake. "A lot of the people that were affected were in low-income areas and they were the ones that I believe the news media took the most notice of and feel the most sorry for."

An assessment of damage prepared for the Earthquake Commission puts significant areas of Fendalton in Zone B, with land damage caused by lateral spreading near rivers and open drains, and liquefaction in isolated pockets.

A builder who declined to be named said he knew of about a dozen Fendalton homes, both old and new, that have been condemned. "I don't know if it's a deliberate thing to keep it under wraps. There's so much carnage in there."

McCormack part-owns the old family home where he grew up at 1Wood Lane on the banks of the Avon River opposite Hagley Park. "When my father bought it, in 1955, it was the most expensive house in Christchurch. I've still got the newspaper clipping."

The large two-storeyed weatherboard house is listed in the city plan as a heritage building and, although a final decision about its future has not been made, McCormack doubts it can be saved because of the extent of damage to the foundations and internal structure. "It's sad because it was such a grand house."

Pre-quake he says the property valuation was just below $3 million. Now? "God knows, because the land is still very valuable." Some Fendalton properties marketed post-quake have been openly advertised as damaged, and one quite new home sold "as is" for $2.3m, well below the GV of $3.37m.

Visitors to an open home at a Georgian-style residence in Holmwood Rd were greeted by timber bracing propping up the ceiling in the lounge and warned to exercise caution when viewing the property because of major cracking throughout. The GV was $1.45m and it sold at auction for $930,000.

Estate agent Lauren Clemett, who handled the sale, says they were effectively selling the land, and the price reflected that. Like McCormack, Clemett believes property values in Fendalton will be maintained because of the suburb's proximity to the CBD and amenities such as Hagley Park.

BUT REGARDLESS of what happens to the market, there's a lot of hard work ahead for the owners of badly damaged Fendalton homes, both old and new.

The fate of Danmark, regarded as something of a Canterbury landmark, remains uncertain. Also known as the Skellerup House, the five-bedroom, five-bathroom stone house in Desmond St was built in 1927 and a rock set in one of the walls was brought back from Antarctica by a member of Shackleton's party.

Last February the newly refurbished house was listed for sale at $2.45m. It sold, and settlement was due just after the quake, but the buyers reluctantly withdrew from the contract because the house was uninhabitable, professionals could not tell them if or when it could be restored, and they were not in a position to wait for conclusive answers.

Peter Rudkin is handling the property on behalf of the owner, his elderly mother. He says the house split in two, with cracks 5cm wide in places, and he expects to find out next month whether it is technically possible to save the building. "It's very heavy – the walls weigh thousands of tonnes. They have sunk but the middle of the house has stayed up."

Rudkin says he offered the property to the Christchurch City Council at its pre-quake valuation, but the offer was declined. "They'd get the proceeds of the insurance which would be about $2.4m, so it would owe them very little, then they could make a decision about whether they kept it."

Daresbury, another imposing heritage Fendalton home, came through the quake in much better shape thanks to strengthening work undertaken about seven years ago.

The Hurst Seagar-designed house was built in the late 1800s for George Humphries, co founder of wine and spirits merchants Fletcher Humphries, and has a category one Historic Places Trust rating (the same as ChristChurch Cathedral).

Owners Libby and Denver Glass say the decision to replace a steel beam in the drawing room was vital, and without it, the second and third storeys could well have collapsed.

They were surprised that despite inserting steel reinforcing rods in their six large ornate chimney stacks, one chimney came down and crashed through the roof, leaving a trail of rubble down the stairs and destroying a balcony.

A crane was brought in to take down the other five because they were unstable, and the three removed intact are now planted in the rose garden as earthquake memorials.

The 40-room house is heated by about 17 gas fires, but because of the chimney damage, only one is currently useable and Denver Glass is eager to get them back in working order before winter sets in.

He'd like to rebuild the chimneys in brick if possible, but having seen what an earthquake can do, Libby Glass admits to being a little nervous at the thought of having that much masonry perched above their heads.

There are more than 200 Christchurch homes registered with the Historic Places Trust or listed as heritage buildings in the city plan, and about 30 of them are in Fendalton, an older suburb with a higher concentration of pre-World War II housing.

Historic Places Trust heritage adviser Dave Margetts says the trust is encouraging owners of damaged properties in the "twilight zone" to get detailed costings and advice from the trust before applying to pull them down. He says more than half the city's 125 trust-registered homes were damaged in some way. Of these, 5% are at risk of demolition or have already been pulled down. In Fendalton, old two-storeyed brick buildings were badly affected.

FOR NEWER Fendalton properties an innovative engineering option is available to level houses, closing up cracks in the process.

Architect Maurice Mahoney's 45-year-old home near the Waimairi Stream is among those in line for treatment with an expanding polymer resin injected into the ground through aluminium tubes to raise concrete slabs and sunken foundations, and stabilise the ground underneath. He was quoted $50,000 to level his house. "We walk downhill as we walk through the house; it drops about 138mm along its total length."

It will cost another $40,000 to level the two-storey concrete block garage which has "tilted out of plumb" and moved about 10cm away from the house, but he says it might prove more economic to rebuild.

Uretek, the company carrying out the levelling process, was involved in similar seismic remediation work in Turkey and Japan, and after the 1989 earthquake which devastated parts of Newcastle in Australia.

Uretek's South Island manager, Phil Johnston, says the base material injected beneath houses is urethane – "in another form it's plastic shopping bags" – which spreads out underground. "It finds all the holes and voids and soft bits and then it expands." On soft ground it will expand to 40 times its volume.

Uretek has been operating in the North Island for nine years, treating 200 to 300 homes annually, usually affected by land subsidence, and this will be the firm's first earthquake work in New Zealand.

The process normally takes about two days and costs between $20,000 to $70,000 depending on the amount of ground movement and the size of the house. "If we get one that's really bad, it might be $200,000 and it's beyond economics for us to do it."

Johnston is doing quotes for Fendalton properties, both old and new, and has already treated one. He says the Fendalton residents he has dealt with are well-heeled and just want to quietly get on with fixing their homes "without too many people knowing about it".

He estimates the Uretek system could be used on about 2500 damaged houses in the greater Christchurch area, and predicts that some property owners who thought their houses were "demo jobs" are in for a shock.

"There's a lot of people been told they are going to get a new house and they're not really going to."

Sunday Star Times