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The Fire Reinstatement of Placemaker’s Building at Whitianga

At about 8:30pm on Thursday, 15 January 2009 a fire siren from the Whitianga Fire Station sounded as most people in Whitianga could see a black pool of smoke coming from the Placemakers building located on Joan Gaskill Drive. At night the building (which is only a few years old) is secure to the extent that the fire service team had to break down a timber access door to obtain access to the building to fight the fire. The fire had started in the switchboard in the trade area of the building.
 
placemakersfire When the fire service team gained access, they found that the smoke had built up in both the retail and trade areas of the building to a density where there was only about 600mm of clear visibility ground floor level. By this time the fire had worked its way up the wall with the cabling and into the cabling tray across the building which resulted in flames erupting through the skylights and again in the trade area of the building producing some spectacular flames above the building. By the time the fire service was able to fight the fire inside the building the fire had started to burn out part of the timber framing for the offices and also the internal gutters on the eastern side of the building. Within a reasonably short period of time the fire service team had the fire under control and the hot spots dampened down.

Murray Smith of Airey Consultants Ltd happened to be on holiday in Whitianga at the time and was called the next morning by Peter Abrahamson from Whitianga Waterways representing Whitianga Commercial Ltd, the actual owners of the building, to come to a site meeting to discuss what needed to be done to start repairs to the building.
Peter was anxious that Placemakers could carry on business as soon as possible. With a lot of help from their own staff, locals and electrical subcontractors the building was cleaned up and power was on again by Monday morning to allow Placemakers to trade even though their offices had been burnt out and there were holes in the roof above the trade area. Also at the Friday meeting was John Murray, the local Project Manager for Fosters Construction Ltd, who had originally built the building and an interim plan was sorted out to start clearing the area to allow business to continue.  The insurance assessors and experts arrived over the weekend to assess the damage and to determine the cause of the fire and early in the next week Murray Smith was appointed by the Insurance Assessor David Ralfe to act as the Project Manager to coordinate the reinstatement of the building. Foster Construction was already underway with the removal of the switchboard connecting up a temporary switchboard and the removal of the fire damaged areas within the office spaces.  What was first thought to be about two months of work for Foster Construction with the reinstatement of the building turned out to be a much longer project lasting nearly a year.

Because of the concerns of the affects of the fire in the electrical equipment and the cabling, two corrosion experts were instructed to undertake a review of the building and to report back on the extent of possible damage to the structure of the building due to the release of halogens from the plastic formulation used in the surrounds of the electrical wiring and with chemical interaction between these halogens and the water vapour resulted in the formation of hydrochloric acid.  Dispersed as droplets within the smoke cloud these droplets tend to rapidly attach to the soot and dust particles which then adhered to the various structural elements and also the merchandise within the building. With a relatively high humidity in the area this became similar to the affects of acid rain. The investigation found that the entire portal structures within the building that were painted were not affected by this corrosion acid rain but anything that was galvanised such as the purlins, girts and the long run iron roof cladding together with the galvanised wire netting were all affected by this corrosive action.  In the end following the advice from the specialists Murray Smith decided that in order to be able to confirm that the building would last its design period of 50 years all the roofing including the purlins, girts and wire netting needed to be completely removed and replaced with new materials. The original construction of the building using new materials was a rather easy construction process but to replace the cladding and the roofing with the building in operation required careful planning and coordination with the tenant Placemakers so as to minimise the effects on their operations. This was no easy task for John Murray of Foster Construction and his team, but they successfully completed the refurbishment work which included a new switchboard, cabling, cable trays etc, replacement of air conditioning units and mechanical services by Mid 2009.

There is much to be learned out of this reinstatement project, particularly the affects of an electrical fire which resulted in the cabling reaching a temperature where it produced halogens and chlorides to damage the building to this extent.  It has resulted in an awareness of the affects of an electrical fire on such a building and the damage it can cause to any unpainted metallic surfaces, or even galvanised surfaces, but also the effects it had on the merchandise within the building.
 
The Project Team was:

Insurance Assessor
David Ralfe - McLarens Young Ltd

Project Manager
Murray Smith - Airey Consultants Ltd

Site Manager
John Murray - Foster Construction Ltd

Owners Representative
Peter Abrahamson

Electrical Consulting Engineer
Nick Topp - ECS Ltd

Mechanical Engineer
Greg Moore - Dobbie Engineers Ltd

Corrosion Consultants
Allan McLauchlan - AGM Consulting Ltd
Les Bolton - Bolton Consultants Ltd

Tenants Representative
John McGill - McGill Building Supplies Ltd


NOTE: Outwardly looking at the building the next morning after the fire and there was no real sign of any fire outside the building but then inside it was a different story…
 
Murray Smith is now an expert at Project Managing fire damage repair. We wish this will never happen to a building you own, but you know who to contact if it does!


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