Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Stop the Big Machines

Officially, the clean up from the Christchurch earthquakes is proceeding quickly and is under good control. There has been some theft, and some unwarranted destruction, but the Civil Defence process has been a big success, if we are to believe Mayor Bob Parker and The Press.

Some people don't agree with that. From my point of view, I think the Civil Defence Controller, and the police, were put in an extraordinary situation. I accept that they did their best. We have to thank them for the effort while acknowledging that in the process some of the things that happened might not have been ideal. None of that can be changed now.

Big MachinesCleared Land
There's a clear reason for using big machines on a task like the dangerous St Elmo Courts building. On buildings like those at the rear much can be done to deconstruct the buildings and recover materials using simple tools. That should be done.


Two things alerted me to a serious situation we can do something about, and something we need to act on immediately. I attended the conference, Resilient Futures: Supporting Recovery in Greater Christchurch (18 April). Key ideas from the Conference, were that the earthquake is a social disaster, even more than a physical disaster. The damage we can't see will be a bigger problem than all the physical damage we can see. The public needs to be actively engaged in the clean up, and in the planning of the rebuild, and in the rebuilding of the city. The clean-up and the rebuild can help to heal that social damage, if we do it right.

I also attended the Green Recovery Workshop at Lincoln University run by Charles Kelly (4th Video) (20 April). Charles Kelly showed the Conference a graphic of the management structure under CERA. He asked; "Where is concern for the environment here?" There is nothing in the Act that creates CERA, nor in the regulations controlling normal demolition of buildings in Christchurch that actively protects the environment. The CCC for instance, requires site owners to get permission to demolish the building, but the stated concerns are to safely disconnect from power, gas, water and waste disposal systems. There is no requirement to minimise debris creation. In normal times that might have been a minor concern, but if the waste stream is twenty times normal, that's no longer true.

I've spent quite a lot of time on my bicycle, riding slowly through the ruins. Everywhere I see powerful machines smashing down buildings, and clearing the rubble away by loading it onto big trucks. I've thought that this was completely "normal" given the massive clean up that's needed. It never occurred to me to question what was being done. That's just my own ignorance. I expect that same ignorance is shared by most people in Christchurch. Building demolition and cleanup is in the hands of people who know what to do and it's getting done as quickly as possible. Three cheers for success in adversity.

Pile of Rubble
This is the only site in the city (Papanui) where I have seen any on site effort to recover materials.Here's what's left after the big machines have taken a building down. There are still recoverable materials there, but much has been destroyed.


It was reported on Thursday 21st April that Christchurch is to dump 20 years of rubble in this year. Already that is starting to pose a serious problem. I've also been told that strenuous effort is being made to recycle the rubble. - I've been a bit slow about this, but alarm bells are starting to ring. Now I go back to the documents supplied online by the WWF and the American Red Cross, that Charles Kelly used as a text for his Green Recovery Workshop. There are texts about disaster debris in module five and a little in module six. There are 75 Accredited Demolition Companies registered on the Canterbury Earthquake site (27 April).

Module Five - GRRT

One of the most easy environmentally sustainable things to do, is to think carefully about how to make debris a resource, rather than a problem. This process begins on the site. What can be picked out of this site, that can be stored and reused at some later stage? Roofing iron and roofing tiles for instance, if removed by hand, they are easily recycled. There is one easy lesson, is what we should be trying to do, with all building sites and with all debris. On most sites there is only a small role for the big machines we now see active everywhere. Once a machine has smashed down a building most of the iron and tiles have lost all their manufactured value, to become scrap metal and hardfill. That's both an environmental disaster and a deliberate waste of economic potential. It's not true that "insurance pays for it" so it doesn't matter. The unnecessary continued destruction of real wealth, by unthinking deconstruction, is simply a failure to do what best practice demands.

Asphalt can be stored and eventually reused on the roads. Concrete can be crushed and reused in construction. There is a ready market for recycled metals. Roofing iron is more valuable in usable sheets than as crushed steel. There is a demand for used timber, especially large beams, but also for smaller timbers which furniture makers can use. Electrical wiring is recoverable. Everything we can recover, restore or reuse is to our advantage.

The environmental and wealth preservation task is to send as little material to landfill as possible. The social task is to create employment and to give people an active part in the cleanup and reconstruction of their city. So what can we do?

We need to look at each site. High heavy masonry might need to be taken down to a moderate level by a big machine, but once a site is sensibly made safe, people should enter with hand tools and remove what they can. Pilot studies in the USA after hurricane Katrina showed that in a week 40% of the materials in a building can be removed and entered into the recycling stream, instead of the waste stream. The place to begin that work is on the original site, and the materials should be separated and sorted and denailed and packed on site. As much as possible the soil, dust and small rubble on the site, should remain on the site, rather than collected and concentrated at a recycling centre.

More Demolitionsrecovery potential
All these buildings are likely to go. About half the materials in the buildings can be recycled if they are taken down with some thought about reuse.This old home is probably going to come down too. Imagine how much quality timber and fittings it contains. Too good to turn into firewood.


The message from module five, is to rescue materials from the site in the best possible useable condition. That requires the careful deconstruction of the site, mostly using hand tools, and avoiding as much as possible creating a pile of "rubble".

Module Six - GRRT

Module six talks about what happens to the rubble. The inappropriate dumping of debris can cause more environmental damage than the disaster itself. Neither the normal rules for demolition in Christchurch nor the new rules under which CERA is operating, make any reference to concerns about environmental damage created by debris disposal.

In particular, the dumping of debris in the sea, or in rivers, or in low lying swamp land will contaminate water and cause future problems. Such activities should be avoided.

Disaster sites themselves are a source of water contamination during the clean up. Perimeter controls and daily site cleaning should be used to keep oil, chemicals and silt out of the drains.

Repairing the Social Damage

The conference and workshop talk about and hint at, massive social damage in the community that is unseen. To try and flush that out, we are talking about depressed business conditions, high unemployment, loss of certainty, loss of confidence, loss of wealth, psychological depression, increased abuse of drugs and alcohol, increased family violence, and more suicides. Knowing that we are going to have these problems gives us good reason to take active preventive steps.

Why, do we have 50,000 plus unemployed in the city? Look at the place. Are you telling me there's nothing to be done? Our problem is to mobilize these people in a way that makes them useful, and that allows them to make a real contribution to the clean up and the rebuilding. There is Mr Brownlee's real challenge. How can building owners utilize the labour of those people, under supervision, with simple tools, extracting the best materials out of buildings that are being deconstructed. How can we turn a process of demolition into a process of deconstruction and reuse?

Working on the cleanup, is therapeutic. Working on the cleanup will help people to come to terms with what has happened to them and to other people, and to see their own troubles in perspective. Working on the clean up will help people to think about and to become involved in the recovery and rebuilding.

We have a couple of other potential problems here too. One is too much loose money, in a market that is already over-capacity. That will force up the price of land and labour and of everything that Christchurch needs for recovery. As a result insurance payments that might look quite generous of the surface, will end up being unable to buy anything like the same sort of property here in Christchurch. People might be better off to buy elsewhere. A "boom" in building might be "nice" for some, but it has it's cost too.

If the rebuild is too rapid, particularly if the planning for it is not well considered, strategic mistakes will be made that the city will struggle to correct later. A too rapid rebuild, will severely inflate prices, limiting what Christchurch gets for each dollar spent, and at the end of the process, there is a depression in the city. In Kobe, after a two year boom, the depression lasted for five years.

There's a lot to think about. There is no prefect reconstruction process. Everything has a cost and a benefit. There is no place called "away" where we can dump our debris. There is no place called "source" where whatever we need, will appear at no environmental or monetary cost. There is no "vacant place" where we can build emergency housing. There is no "safe" place in terms of being 100% sure of protection against natural disasters. The loss of wealth we have suffered cannot be "fixed" by insurance money nor by government money, even if the amount of money was much more than will actually be paid. The social losses of the community can best be reestablished by actively creating Street Groups and Residents Associations, and engaging in community activities.

Lots to think about, and much to do. There are no perfect solutions here.

John Stephen Veitch
The Network Ambassador
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2 comments:

rethreads said...

This is great work, John. I've put a link on my facebook page - would encourage you to take a look at it (facebook) it's been a fabulous networking tool post EQ. thanks for all you are doing to ask questions and research. Briar

John S Veitch said...

From the Press, 7th May, 2011.

A mountain of rubble is rising from the ruins of Christchurch at a makeshift landfill in the east of the city.

The Burwood resource recovery park in Bottle Lake Forest Park has about 100,000 tonnes of rubble in stacks up to 25 metres high from the wreckage caused by the deadly February 22 earthquake.

Initial estimates were that 4.25 million tonnes of rubble and 380,000 tonnes of silt would be recycled at the site, which was set up by the city council in March.

Civil Defence last month revised the estimates to 8 million tonnes of rubble and 500,000 tonnes of silt and sand.

EcoCentral, owned by the council's investment arm, is one of three joint-venture partners operating at Burwood.

General manager Robert Gerrie said 100,000 tonnes of rubble was already there, although the amount of material arriving had slowed since the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) took over the cleanup from Civil Defence.

The park covers one-eighth of the 845-hectare Bottle Lake Forest.

"It's wholly designed to recycle it; to put the aggregate [broken-up concrete for construction], steel and glass and bits and pieces back into the Canterbury region as a recycled product," Gerrie said. "I imagine there's going to be quite a bit of aggregate reused when we start rebuilding."

It is thought it may take five or six years to recycle and sort all of the material being stored at the site.