Podcast: The Detail

Salvaging Auckland’s International Convention Centre

The Detail today talks to a fire engineer about the SkyCity International Convention Centre blaze

An Auckland fire engineer believes the salvage operation on the SkyCity International Convention Centre could be more complex than the original design, and is comparable to rebuilding after an earthquake.

It will certainly take a long time – and the chances of now having the building and hotel ready for APEC in 2021 are now slim. But in spite of that, and the centre’s controversial start and history, SkyCity insists its goals to finish an iconic centre for Auckland and New Zealand remain the same.

Fire fighters decided to sacrifice the roof in order to get the blaze under control, but they had to wait for it to burn through – and couldn’t get people up there while that was happening. In the meantime, flames could still be seen leaping from the top of the building, and smoke cloaked the city.

Stuart Harris is a fire engineer and CEO of Holmes Fire. He believes that while this long, slow-burning fire has been incredibly difficult for fire fighters to contain, in terms of saving lives, “they didn’t get caught out, they had time to evacuate, and it didn’t affect their safety to the same degree it would if it was a really fast fire”.

He says the convention centre has avoided having materials that had, for example, huge amounts of exposed timber or exposed plastics. “It’s those materials which burn faster and hotter than something like this.

“There were no reports of any construction workers getting injured by fire, and I think that’s the key thing to be focused on.

“What’s bad about it is that it’s incredibly complex to extinguish, and it’s taking a long, long time,” says Harris.

“But in terms of fires in the country it’s nothing compared to Ballantynes fire in Christchurch ... I mean that’s a long time ago (1947) but in terms of severity of fire that would still be up there in terms of being a far more problematic fire than this one.”

Harris believes the fire design for the SkyCity building would be robust.

“It will have gone through all its peer reviews, and I would expect it’s got all the typical systems you see in a building like this in terms of its fire alarms, sprinkler systems and smoke management systems. But the building is still under construction. So you need to understand that lots of those systems are going to be installed, but either aren’t yet finished or haven’t yet been installed …. in a completed building those would all be there.

“There are practical limitations to the point at which you could have them installed and commissioned.

“It’s just that what you’re seeing is a construction site on fire.”

The convention centre was to be one of the largest projects of its kind in New Zealand history, a major asset for the country in attracting large-scale events. It included 32 thousand square metres of space, more than 13 hundred carparks and a five-star, 300-room Horizon Hotel.

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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