Rods 'just pulled straight out'

CHARLIE GATES AND OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 05:00 09/09/2011

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Steel rods installed to earthquake-strengthen Christchurch buildings failed to stop facades collapsing on to busy streets on February 22, the co-author of a new report has found.

The report shows that 40 people died in the February 22 quake as a result of falling masonry. Families of the dead say the country is "honour-bound" to learn from the findings.

The report, prepared for the Canterbury earthquakes royal commission, calls for nearly 4000 unreinforced-masonry buildings in New Zealand to be strengthened at an estimated cost of more than $2 billion.

Report co-author Jason Ingham said steel reinforcing rods "just pulled straight out" during the February quake and failed to prevent masonry facades collapsing.

Ingham, an associate professor at Auckland University, said the finding was alarming as the quake-strengthening method is widely used in New Zealand and the United States.

The US National Science Foundation has funded further research in Christchurch to find out why the method failed.

The method involves drilling steel rods into brick facades to pin them to a reinforced metal frame behind.

"Many of those rods just pulled straight out. We are still going through the process of finding how many times that happened,'' he said.

''When there were failures, that was the most common reason. The building owner spent money on this and these buildings were supposed to be strengthened.

"This is a method that is widely used in California, so it is rather alarming. Some of the strengthening in California could suffer the same problem."

The report recommends all unreinforced buildings in New Zealand be improved to protect the public from falling hazards and that they should meet at least 67 per cent of the standard required for new buildings. It also calls for a single national policy to oversee the strengthening of the masonry buildings.

Robert Gilbert, who lost his 22-year-old son, Jaime, in the February quake, said the nation was "honour-bound" to follow the report's recommendations.

"The fact of the matter is we have unreinforced buildings that we know about. Are we going to be surprised when they fall down in another earthquake?" he said.

 "We should all sit down and think, `Do we want someone's death on our hands?' We need to learn something from all those deaths. As a nation, we are honour-bound to do this."

Gilbert's son died when he was working in the Iconic Bar on the corner of Manchester and Gloucester streets.

Waimakariri Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove said it would be "common sense" to support the recommendations.

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"When experts come to a commission with recommendations and proposals about heeding the loss of life, then they all have to be taken extremely seriously," he said.

"They are trying to save lives ... It would be common sense to support those."

The report estimates it would cost $2.1b to quake-strengthen the nearly 4000 unreinforced-masonry buildings, which are collectively worth $1.5b.

Ingham said there needed to be public debate on how the strengthening work could be funded.

"It all comes down to cost and it falls to building owners to finance it. Funding is a question that needs to be held in a public forum,'' he said.

''There needs to be public support for building owners, but quite how this is done is something that needs a lot of discussion. There is no easy answer." 

Property Council national president Chris Gudgeon said building owners could be given an incentive to strengthen their properties with a tax break.

- The Press

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