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Lessons learnt 10 years on from the Christchurch earthquakes

June 23, 2021

Many New Zealand senior engineers cut their teeth in the demanding environment of post-earthquake Christchurch in 2011 at SCIRT

If you aren’t familiar with the acronym— SCIRT (which stands for Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team)—was a purpose-built organisation pulled together to deliver the 'horizontal infrastructure rebuild' for Christchurch after the devastating February 2011 earthquake. If there is a silver lining, however, it’s that the earthquake gave Christchurch a chance to reinvent. It also gave the SCRIT team an unprecedented opportunity to work on a largescale crisis response team that would forever reshape their career paths.

So what exactly is SCRIT? Well, the SCIRT alliance was a crisis response formed in May 2011 between Waka Kotahi (then NZ Transport Agency), Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority and the Christchurch City Council. The SCIRT office officially opened on 11 October that same year and housed consultants and contractors from City Care, Downer, Fletchers, Fulton Hogan, McConnell Dowell, Stantec, GHD and WPS. The ensuing $2.1 billion programme encompassed hundreds of projects, spanning five years on a scale never before seen in New Zealand (NZ). Needing to rebuild a broken city as quickly, safely and effectively as possible, Stantec engineers at SCIRT swiftly picked up how important it was to get behind digital innovations.

Stantec engineers on SCIRT: agility and collaboration

Stantec Civil engineers, Fritha McCrimmon-Robinson, Rico Parkinson and Gareth Cowles discuss how working on SCIRT propelled them into management and leadership roles, and helped them establish innovative modes of working that they apply to their project work today.

At only 22 years old Fritha managed all the SQEs (Supplier Quality Engineers) as well as the general day-to-day running of the site and monitoring program. Later as Project Engineer and Temporary Project Manager she took on the financial, planning and management side of the projects as well as training and managing junior staff. Fritha's experience at SCIRT gave her a unique experience hard to match.

Fritha's number one takeaway was learning to adapt to change, which has consequently led to speaking engagements and awards. 'I was invited to the 2020 Women in Construction Summit in London to speak about adapting to change, directly related to my work at SCIRT,' says Fritha. Because the Summit was held in October—during the COVID-19 global pandemic—the Summit was held virtually. 'It was a recorded talk and I was available online during and after the recording for live questions which all went really well.'

Managing multimillion dollar projects gave her management skills and opportunities she might not otherwise have had in her career, and it's helped her win many awards. Most notably, she won a 2015 IPENZ Fulton-Downer Silver Medal—the President's Award for Meritorious Service, the WISE Rising Star presented by Princess Royal Anne in 2018, and she was listed in the Financial Times' Top 100 Most Influential Women in Engineering in 2019. 

Fritha McCrimmon-Robinson working at SCIRT.

Rico was an engineer on one of SCIRT's four design teams. He'd already been involved in the emergency response work prior to SCIRT's formation. Once SCIRT started, he led the design of two large diameter pressure mains, and the central city's wastewater design from concept to construction support.

For Rico, GIS (geographic information system) was a powerful work tool. 'Single points of service data are extremely beneficial for pipeline design. When you work with limited GIS systems and where other service providers are not aligned in providing data, a huge amount of time and rework is carried out,' he explains.

Having client asset owners dedicated to approving design ensured a streamlined process to enable designs and specific approaches to be carried out without delays, and providing significant tools like 12D, GIS and CAD removed bottle necks in the design process, speeding up designing for on-the-ground engineers like Rico.

A cracked Fitzgerald Avenue in Christchurch shows the severity of the quake.

For Rico, his exposure at SCIRT gave him a broader view of the varying standards of design approaches around NZ, and he sees a great opportunity to standardise them.

You had to accept change, move with it, and define the process when guidance didn’t exist. We hadn't done this before—this was unprecedented for Christchurch.

Now Canterbury's Delivery Lead for Stantec NZ's Water business, Gareth joined the SCIRT design team in 2012 as a senior civil engineer. Between then and leaving SCIRT in 2015 he led up to 35 technical staff in design teams for GHD and WSP and was responsible for the delivery of stormwater, wastewater, water supply, retaining wall, and bridging projects.

For Gareth, being part of a 180-person design team made up from a wide range of consultants, working alongside five different contractors, and delivering to three client organisations was dynamic, to say the least. And his role changed four times, each time taking on more responsibility.

'The priorities of the rebuild evolved as the programme progressed and I had to respond accordingly,' explains Gareth. 'The programme wouldn't have been successful unless collaboration thrived between the clients, consultants and contractors all intent on rebuilding Christchurch for the people of Christchurch.' 

Gareth advocates for a central GIS, accessible to everyone involved in a project. 'This is a critical tool to ensure that everyone has access to current project information. Plus, any shared digital tools for workflow management, version control and cost management on larger programmes of work.'   

Gareth Cowles as a younger engineer looking at 'lateral spread'.

Applying lessons learnt to the water reform

The Christchurch rebuild needed rapid mobilisation of clients, consultants, contractors, and other stakeholders. It required innovative thinking, strong communication, and identification of cost efficient yet resilient designs to meet the needs of the Christchurch community.

Water Group Leader, Upper North Island Chris Maguire believes NZ can build upon practices from alliances and programmes like SCIRT.

'We can build on the individual opportunities and experiences of engineers like Rico, Gareth and Fritha to help us meet the needs of infrastructure investment for water renewals and enable sustainable economic growth for all of New Zealand,' says Chis. 'In 2021, through water reform, the country is looking at substantial investment in water infrastructure unseen in recent years, including the need for increased resilience for natural hazards, carbon reduction and climate change.'

Chris appreciates that what is needed for successful reform is strong communication, project programming and prioritisation, and asset identification and condition assessment combined with the use of technology.

'Underpinning all of this requires strong relationships with all key stakeholders and a fundamental understanding of te mana o te wai,' says Chris. 'Implementing what we've learnt from SCIRT and other such alliances will provide opportunities for future industry leaders to grow.'

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