Christchurch's Approach to Rebuilding After a Disaster Should Be a Model for Cities

How public-private partnerships have enabled the New Zealand city to rebound from a earthquake stronger than ever. 

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REUTERS/Daniel McQueen

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand —You don’t see it, but you certainly know when it’s not there: infrastructure. Miles of underground pipes carrying drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater; utilities such as gas and electricity; and fiber-optics and communications cables that spread likes veins and arteries under the streets of a city.

No showers, no cups of tea or coffee, no flushing toilets, no lights, no heating, and no traffic lights—a modern, bustling city immediately shuts down. Factor in damaged roads, bridges, and retaining walls above ground, and the situation is dire.

That calamity hit Christchurch, New Zealand, in a series of earthquakes that devastated the city in 2010 and 2011.

Most people here don’t see the extent of repair work going on underground. They just notice road work and the seemingly millions of orange cones that have sprouted up all over the city. Yet the organization created to manage Christchurch’s infrastructure rebuild has a vital role, and it’s become something of a global model for how to put the guts of a city back together again quickly and efficiently after a disaster. 

It’s called SCIRT, which stands for Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team. It’s a sort of consortium consisting of the local government, two national government agencies, and five civil-engineering firms. They’ve teamed up to rebuild the city’s water systems, underground utilities, roadways, and other components of its so-called “horizontal infrastructure.” SCIRT is tasked with spending $NZ 3 billion ($2.5 billion U. S.) on more than 650 projects by December 2016. The work is almost halfway done and appears on track to be finished on time.

Just as important, SCIRT’s mission is to rebuild these systems stronger and better able to withstand another quake. That’s sometimes as simple as replacing broken earthenware and concrete pipes with flexible plastic ones. At a time when many cities face growing threats from natural disasters, SCIRT offers an example for local leaders around the world to learn from.

“What we are creating is a template to create a disaster-recovery framework for action,” says Duncan Gibb, SCIRT’s general manager. “The structure that we’ve used here is effectively transferred across from construction, and it can be used in construction anywhere.”

Waves of destruction

Before 2010, nobody would have imagined the terrible fate that befell this city of 360,000. Although New Zealand sits on a major tectonic plate boundary, the Christchurch fault lines were unknown. Nobody expected a big earthquake to strike in this location.

The first quake struck on September 4, 2010. It measured 7.1 on the Richter scale, but was concentrated just outside the city. It damaged buildings, but no lives were lost. A second earthquake on February 22, 2011, measured 6.3 but was more devastating. It hit directly underneath the city at lunchtime, killing 185 people. A further 18,000 aftershocks continued to inflict damage throughout 2011.

The compact central business district of Christchurch was destroyed. Older masonry buildings crumbled. The neo-Gothic Christchurch Cathedral, the city’s namesake, looked like a bomb hit it. The top floor of the early 20th-century building I worked in, The Press Building, caved in, killing one and seriously injuring others. I was in the more modern central library at the time. It stood up well, but will still have to come down. Hundreds of buildings have been demolished, including most high-rise office buildings and hotels.

Much of Christchurch’s central business district was severely damaged by the February 22, 2011 earthquake. Hundreds of buildings have been demolished, including most high-rise office buildings and hotels. (Nigel Spiers/Shutterstock)

On the eastern side of the city close to the Pacific Ocean, the ground liquefied and “sand volcanoes” began to bubble up from below. It was the worst “liquefaction” event ever recorded anywhere, according to experts. Streets became choked with silt and house foundations sank into the ground. Massive craters appeared in roads. Whole suburbs were declared “red zones” and abandoned. Other suburbs, mostly in the more interior west, fared much better and escaped with light damage. However, just about every household has been affected in some way. 

The overall cost of the Christchurch rebuild is estimated at $NZ 40 billion ($34 billion U. S.)—approximately 10 percent of New Zealand’s GDP. That compares with an estimated 2 to 3 percent of GDP for Japan to recover from the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

The rebuilding of what goes above ground—the so-called “vertical rebuild”—is proving challenging. Many people have been battling with insurance companies and a government-funded insurer known as the Earthquake Commission to settle claims on lost or damaged properties. Affordable housing and traffic congestion are now emerging as big problems. Disputes have arisen over how the city and the CBD should develop, the kind of buildings that are needed, and who will pay for them.

The horizontal rebuild run by SCIRT is faring much better. That’s vital, because the water systems, utilities, and roads need to be in place before much construction can happen above ground.

Alliance model

To understand what makes SCIRT’s approach innovative, you have to know how the conventional model for building infrastructure in New Zealand works. Normally, public-sector clients put out projects for tender, and competing civil engineering companies bid for the work. The process for awarding just one project can take months and runs the risk of construction delays and cost overruns.

Instead, SCIRT is a co-operative model. The public-sector owners of the infrastructure pay for the work, and lend staff to SCIRT to manage and coordinate projects and set overall direction. The five engineering firms are participants in SCIRT, and lend design and fulfillment teams to sketch out and deliver projects. All parties share the risks of building in a place where the geology itself has changed in ways that are still being revealed; they also share information with each other on what they’re finding when they dig into the ground.

SCIRT comprises three government agencies: the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, Christchurch City Council, and the New Zealand Transport Agency. The engineering companies are City Care, Downer, Fletcher, Fulton Hogan, and McConnell Dowell. The organization was created by the national government of New Zealand in September 2011.

Engineers reinforce retaining walls to keep water at bay while building new abutments for the Antigua Street bridge. SCIRT is responsible for rebuilding the city’s “horizontal” infrastructure, including water systems, underground utilities and roads. (David Killick/Citiscope)

According to Gibb, an Australian who came to Christchurch to build SCIRT, “The whole objective was to create an organization that encompasses both collaboration and competition.” Companies still compete for projects and receive a fee, but the central agency makes the big decisions and sets priorities without going through the traditional hoops. SCIRT determines the budget and the fees, and allocates projects. Because costs and fees are set in advance, contractors do not make runaway profits.

SCIRT managers allocate work based on key performance indicators that include the cost, timeliness and value of the delivered projects. “Those who perform better get allocated more work,” says Gibb. “Poor performance erodes the fee; good performance increases the fee.” All contractors started out being allocated an equal amount of work; however, each company’s share has now altered.

Gibb calls SCIRT’s structure an “alliance agreement.” It’s based on a model originally developed by oil companies in the North Sea for drilling offshore oil rigs: “Lots of risk, lots of unknowns,” Gibb says. All parties agree to explicit goals and objectives. “They are all focusing on the same outcomes that will either drive success for all parties or failure for all parties. In a traditional arrangement, a client can be really successful and the contractors do really badly, and vice versa.”

In SCIRT’s model, construction organizations maintain their own independence, systems and procedures. By being independent, they ensure safety, quality, environmental, and commercial outcomes are optimized; there is no unnecessary duplication of procedures. That is also a win for public funders, through savings on bureaucracy.

Advantages are time savings, control over budgets, less complexity, and—as engineers love to say—just getting things done. Efficiency and performance are paramount. Funders, contractors, and the public are expected to benefit. It’s hard to argue with the results so far: Cost escalations have been kept down and the budget is on track.

Orange cones are ubiquitous on the roads of Christchurch these days. SCIRT has worked extra hard to update the public of what projects are under construction so they can adjust commutes. (David Killick/Citiscope)

SCIRT sunsets in December 2016, when emergency repairs are complete. After that date, staff from the partner agencies and contractors will go back to their parent organizations.

Laurie Johnson, a San Francisco-based disaster-recovery consultant who is studying what’s going on in Christchurch, says the SCIRT model is one cities everywhere should look at. “It’s essentially bringing together the design, the construction and the funding into one organization that is working together seamlessly from beginning to end,” Johnson says.

Public relations

Apart from its commercial model, SCIRT has won accolades for its engagement with a deeply rattled public. Rebuilding projects often close roads and make the city’s bad traffic problem worse; SCIRT sends out regular emails announcing where projects will be underway so that drivers can plan their commutes. SCIRT even sends people out to knock on doors and distribute leaflets to make sure people know what is going on.

“We do a huge amount of traffic modeling and all sorts of work so that we sequence our jobs so they are close to each other to make sure that there’s always an alternate route,” Gibb says. “Then we’ve got to advise the public of what the route is.”

Sometimes, SCIRT and the community will celebrate the completion of a project, such as last November’s grand re-opening of a causeway that links the city with some of the seaside suburbs (the festivities included cake stalls and home-baked goods).  Engineers also have noticed that school kids are fascinated by the sight of machines digging holes in the ground, laying down pipes, and paving roads. SCIRT has been running sessions at schools near work sites so that kids can learn more about construction and how to stay safe while works are in progress. Indeed, the whole city is a living workshop.

Gibb, who has 30 years of construction experience, says he was well prepared for the technical and management task, but the people side has been equally important. “I came along and thought this is a construction project,” Gibb says. “Well, actually, it’s a disaster-recovery project. And when you take that into context and you understand that not only are the people in your team suffering from this but the people in the community, and when you are more mindful of that, you can actually work with minimum additional effort to help build the resilience back into the community.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site. 

About the Author

  • David Killick is a Christchurch-based freelance journalist and photographer who edits the At Home magazine for The Press newspaper. He also writes a weekly column called Design Matters.