Frustration evident as council weighs possible solutions for quake-risk library

3:11 pm on 26 September 2022
Nelson's Elma Turner Library

The library has been closed since June because of heavy tiles installed in its ceiling. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

The future of Nelson's Elma Turner Library remains uncertain, as council considers the options for fixing its earthquake prone ceiling at a potential cost of up to $2.5 million.

It was revealed in June 2022 that heavy ceiling tiles in the central city library posed an earthquake risk and it was closed to the public.

A report presented to Nelson City Council this week showed strengthening the ceiling, either by replacing the heavy tiles or leaving them in situ and bracing the ceiling would cost between $1m and $2.5m.

At a council meeting on Thursday, property services manager Rebecca Van Orden said a detailed seismic assessment had been completed for the ceiling tiles and strengthening work had been done in the children's area at a cost of $98,000 so it could reopen as a pop-up library.

A structural detailed seismic assessment for the building was underway at an estimated cost of $42,000 and was expected to be completed by the end of October.

If it resulted in a score of less than 34 percent of the New Build Standard, the council would have to decide whether to fix the problem or close the facility.

"It's not an easy fix, the ceiling tiles themselves are a very heavy weight and the reason we can't just pull them out is because of the heating system being within the tiles," Van Orden said.

"The plan was to replace with lightweight tiles and that would have been simple but it was clear at the start of the construction work that was planned that it wasn't going to be that simple."

Van Orden said the options were to install lightweight tiles and consider another heating source or leave the heavy tiles in place and brace the ceiling.

'Significantly unsatisfactory' situation

Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese.

Rachel Reese Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Mayor Rachel Reese said the council was now in a position that was "significantly unsatisfactory" for delivering library services.

"Certainly the feedback we have been getting from some sectors of our community is that they are missing critical support that they need to function in society."

Libraries manager Sarina Barron said people still had full access to library collections, although its usage had dropped. With the closure of the Elma Turner Library, the number of people visiting the Stoke and Tahunānui libraries had increased, as had IT usage at those sites.

"Content is still accessible via library staff, but for many people that ability to browse and this goes for the wider collection, is incredibly important, it really helps make a literate society."

The activity room, learning centre and heritage room were not able to be used while the library was closed and Barron said the children's pre-school and after school programmes had reduced dramatically due to the difficulty in finding locations for them.

A seismic assessment in 2014 revealed the ceiling tiles were heavyweight and likely to be a risk, but the library met 42 percent of the New Build Standard and was not considered earthquake prone. At that time, the guidelines did not require assessment of secondary structural or non-structural elements like suspended ceilings.

Reese asked chief executive Pat Dougherty why the work to replace the tiles hadn't been done when it was first realised they posed a risk.

"What I am interested in, from a health and safety perspective, is how you reconcile not undertaking the work ... as this is a dilemma we are in now as we have shut a critical asset."

Dougherty said it "would have been useful" to have been provided with such questions ahead of the meeting as was the working practice, so staff were better prepared to answer them.

Reese said it was important to ask questions about health and safety on the public record.

"I know several councillors are really conscious of the fact they want to get the library back to full operation as quickly as we possibly can because the interactions that [the library] team delivers are actually at the heart of what local government is all about."

Staff will be supplied with further questions from councillors, and will report back at a council meeting next week.