Engineering a Recovery

David Herman, BSCE ’04

At his new home in New Zealand, civil engineer David Herman, BSCE ’04, helps restore the country’s earthquake-damaged buildings. (Frances Oliver)

For fifteen months in 2010–11, a series of earthquakes and aftershocks reaching as high as magnitude 7.1 rocked the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. The February 2011 earthquake alone killed nearly 200 people and destroyed the landmark Christchurch Cathedral.

After the rescue and recovery efforts concluded and the damage was assessed, the Kiwi government urgently appealed to engineers worldwide to help restore the country.

David Herman, BSCE ’04, answered that call. Following the lead of a graduate school classmate, he took a job with Holmes ­Consulting Group, a company of engineers working to put the city back together after the quakes. “I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to be a part of the rebuilding and restoration,” ­Herman says. “They ended up demolishing about 60–70 ­percent of the central business district. Typically you don’t design a building to be usable after an earthquake — as you’re more interested in human safety — and they had a lot of historical unreinforced masonry buildings.” ­Unreinforced masonry buildings are notorious for poor ­performance during earthquakes.

Herman’s first task was to design the retrofit of a significant 100-year-old building, named on local and national historic registers, located on the campus of a prep school called Christ’s College.

His services were in great demand, but the decision to relocate was a difficult one. He’d grown content in Seattle, where he had earned a master’s degree in civil engineering at the ­University of Washington. But the Cleveland native had always wanted to work abroad, so in June 2012 he made the 24-hour flight to his new home. An outdoors enthusiast, he quickly became enamored of Christchurch’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the mountains. “In some ways it’s like a wilder Seattle,” he notes.

Herman’s first task was to design the retrofit of a significant 100-year-old building, named on local and national historic registers, located on the campus of a prep school called Christ’s College. Original structural notes naturally couldn’t be located for the two-story edifice — which through the years had served as variously as a library and a career center — so Herman’s task has been to strengthen it while also preserving what he calls the “heritage fabric.”

“We want it to look as much like the original as possible,” he says. Thus, they’re building behind veneers and facades while improving the black-and-gray stone structure to better withstand another earthquake. Upon completion, its upper level will house the school’s performing arts ­department.

Herman’s next project is at the Christchurch Arts Centre, an enormous neo-Gothic cultural hub that once housed galleries and theaters but has been closed since the earthquakes. It’s all been an arduous challenge, but Herman says his employer has been particularly supportive. “There’s a big focus on the work–life balance. They’ll tell you to take time off if you’re working too many hours. It’s not as cutthroat as the States.”

Sure, the metric system and driving on the “wrong” side of the road have taken some getting used to, and he sometimes has a hard time understanding the local diction. “Some people here mumble quite a bit and talk really fast. South of here there’s a pretty thick, almost Scottish accent,” he says. But he enjoys backpacking, skiing and rock climbing nearby and has made the most of cultural opportunities, such as a bicycle tour of a local wine region and a rugby tournament in Wellington accompanied by wild parties — an atmosphere he compares to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

He has no plans to go home anytime soon, and he remains excited to observe the urban planning debate over how to recreate the downtown core. “The city has been slow to come back, but things have been popping up,” he says, noting with a slight smile that the craft brewery scene has ­adequately rebounded. “It feels good to be a part of all this.”

— Ben Westhoff, AB ’99

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