Rebuilding a resilient, inclusive Christ Church Cathedral in New Zealand

After extensive damage caused by an earthquake, architects helped restore Christ Church Cathedral in New Zealand, enhancing its resilience and inclusivity.

Autodesk Video

December 22, 2023

  • When a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011, the town’s cathedral and central square were severely damaged.

  • Architecture firm Warren and Mahoney partnered with residents and the area’s indigenous population to create a more inclusive design while preserving historical details.

  • Using laser point scanning and cloud-based platforms, the firm rebuilt the cathedral to be more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive.

On Feb. 22, 2011, a shallow, intense, 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, near the city’s business center district, causing widespread damage and claiming 185 lives. The damage to the city’s buildings and infrastructure was severe, as these structures were already weakened from a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that occurred just five months earlier on Sept. 4, 2010. 

Multiple buildings collapsed, roads were cracked, and water mains burst. Christ Church Cathedral—situated in front of Cathedral Square and considered to be the center and heart of the city—suffered extensive damage, to the point where no one could enter it. The cathedral and the square are very important to the people of Christchurch, including the local indigenous Tangata Whenua and Iwi. 

But before the earthquake, there wasn’t much of an indigenous presence in the square, so when international architecture and design practice Warren and Mahoney began work on the project, the firm formed a partnership with residents of Christchurch and the area’s indigenous locals, retaining historical elements of the cathedral while rebuilding the square to be more inclusive. Watch the video to learn how Warren and Mahoney succeeded in rebuilding more sustainably, resiliently, and inclusively.

*Editor’s note: Since the publication of this story, Christ Church Cathedral Reinstatement Ltd (CCRL) has announced that the project requires more funding—as well as an additional four years—to complete. The project is in danger of being mothballed, meaning work would stop on the site but would be preserved so that it could be revisited in the future when more funding is available.

View transcript

Brad Sara, Principal, Digital Service Lead, Warren and Mahoney: Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand. In February 2011, the earthquakes hit, and in 40 seconds, it significantly changed 350,000 people’s lives.

Fiona Short, Principal, Sustainability Lead, Warren and Mahoney: Because it was located centrally under the city and at a really shallow depth, it was described to me as the same as lifting up a house two meters and just dropping it.

Sara: Christ Church Cathedral was and still is the heart of Christchurch. It was severely damaged, walls had completely collapsed, no one could enter it.

Whare Timu, Principal, Cultural Design Lead, Warren and Mahoney: The cathedral has a lot of meaning both to the people of Christchurch but also to Tangata Whenua and to the local Iwi. Before the earthquake, there wasn’t very much of an indigenous presence in the built environment. When the earthquake came, it was an opportunity to rebuild with a true partnership between the people of Christchurch but also the indigenous people of this area.

Sara: With the amount of work that we knew we had to do, the partnerships we had to make, we knew we needed to be a 3D-modeling cloud-based company. That meant we made a decision to move to [Autodesk] Revit.

Short: One of the biggest challenges for the cathedral was making sure that it was recognizable, but that it was also resilient. So using authentic heritage materials was really important, but we also needed to find ways to make those resilient for the next 100 years.

Sara: The first stage of design was to create a stabilization phase and ensure that we could get into the building to understand the detail that we needed to reinstate the cathedral. We weren’t able to send people in, and that’s where Spot the Dog came in. We captured a number of laser point cloud scans, as well as drone footage, and we brought that back into a collaborative cloud environment, federated it, and shared it with the design team to make the key decisions we needed for a successful design.

Short: In-depth 3D scans meant that not only could they put each stone back where it should be after it was deconstructed and re-strengthened, but that beautiful moments like the stained glass rose window can actually be rebuilt.

Timu: The cathedral itself is situated in front of the town square. The town square is considered as an Ātea space so that the indigenous community can use it as a place where they can practice and conduct welcoming ceremonies. They worked with artists to really start to be creative around the use of paving. When it’s opened up, you’ll start to see a lot of the indigenous community actually coming to use their space because they can now see themselves reflected in the design of their space.

Sara: Along with Warren and Mahoney was Snøhetta for design, Holmes Consulting as the structural engineer and Powell Fenwick as the services engineer. Later on, as the design evolved, we got a contractor on board in Naylor Love. Being on a cloud-based platform, that allows us to share the data and make decisions with our collaborative partners.

Short: Everyone being able to contribute their specialty to the project is really, really important. Using cloud-based digital platforms like [Autodesk] Forma and Revit allows for the maximum collaboration, whether they are a designer, the client, or the community.

Sara: We are actively using Forma on a number of projects. It’s allowed us to explore designs early and to understand the impact of key decisions early on in a project. The digital transformation of Warren and Mahoney has really supported our growth. It’s allowed us to expand internationally, to approach projects in an innovative way, and deliver things for our clients that we could never comprehend before.

Short: The ways in which we use technology today enable easier, more sustainable decisions to be made about more parts of the design.

Sara: My hope is that we take all of the decisions that we’ve made, all of the information that we’ve gathered, and use that in the future planning of Christchurch. That not only do we successfully deliver individual projects, but we successfully deliver a new city

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