Chair’s Corner

Author(s) Ross Roberts,
Published 22 June 2021
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Chair’s Corner

Construction sector activity

As the end of my two-year term as NZGS Chair approaches it seems appropriate to return to the topic
of my first Chair’s Corner where I discussed the pipeline of work for our sector. Back then (December 2019) the National Construction Pipeline Report (MBIE, 2019) anticipated continued growth in residential and infrastructure sectors until at least 2024, with a peak in the non-residential building sector in 2021 (Fig 1a). 

The pandemic has thrown these forecasts into disarray and it is now much harder to predict what the future will hold for us. Issues such as national debt levels, employment vulnerability and supply chain disruption make forecasting significantly more challenging.

The latest MBIE forecasts in December 2020 suggested a very significant drop in residential construction, a smaller drop in non-residential, and a slight increase in infrastructure (Fig 1b). Overall this forecast a startling 30% drop in building and construction from the high in 2019. However, more recent data showing strength in residential consents suggests that these predictions are overly-conservative. The number of dwellings consented throughout 2020 and in the first three months of 2021 were at record highs (Fig 2). A useful comparison is total consents in the first three months of each year:

  • Jan to Mar 2019 = 8,774
  • Jan to Mar 2020 = 8,746
  • Jan to Mar 2021 = 10,372

These numbers suggest a very strong residential construction sector and are supported by anecdotal reports of a skills shortage in the geotechnical sector across the country.

We are likely to be living with significant uncertainty for some time yet, and there are clouds on the horizon in the form of overseas inflationary pressures, skills and supply chain shortages, but for now the future appears to be bright.

Figure 1 – All building and construction in New Zealand Top: previous forecast to 2024 (MBIE, Dec 2019). Bottom: current forecast to 2025 (MBIE, Dec 2020)

 

Figure 2 – New dwellings consented, monthly average by year,
January 1995–March 2021 (Stats NZ https://www.stats.govt.nz/information-releases/building-consents-issued-march-2021)

NZGS Management Committee

The NZGS management committee includes six elected members and a range of co-opted and ex-officio members. Because of a quirk in our NZGS rules, all six elected roles are up for renewal this term.

The call for nominations to stand for election onto the NZGS National Management committee is scheduled to occur during June. I strongly encourage all members who are passionate about their profession to submit a nomination. Each committee member takes on a portfolio of work which can be tailored to their skills and experience. The ideal committee includes individuals from a range of backgrounds and interests – the only re-requisites are enthusiasm and a willingness to put in the time required. Working on the committee is extremely rewarding. Please get in touch with me if you would like to find out more about what is involved.

I would like to extend my thanks to the current committee for all their hard work, particularly over the last year when finding time for NZGS activities has been particularly challenging. 

NZGS Symposium

The 21st NZGS Symposium was held at the Dunedin Conference Centre in March. After a six-month delay caused by the pandemic it was wonderful to finally meet up with friends from around the country. The event was a great success with quality technical talks, fantastic keynotes beamed in from around the world, and many opportunities to socialise. 

On behalf of all the delegates I would like to extend my thanks to our wonderful sponsors who stood behind the event and ensured it could continue despite all the uncertainty of 2020, and our organising committee who put in countless hours to run the event.

Occupational regulation

In response to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Building Failure Caused by the Canterbury Earthquakes, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) reviewed the occupational regulation of engineers in 2013 and 2014. Since then, progress has been disappointing with several rounds of consultation undertaken by MBIE and Engineering New Zealand and little sign of a conclusion. Despite this I encourage all our members to engage with MBIE this time around. It is understandable that there will be some ‘consultation fatigue’ after such a drawn-out process. However, the latest proposal from MBIE (out for consultation as I write) do appear to be the start of genuine change and may well signal that progress is finally being made. 

Other NZGS activities

The committee and all our supporting volunteers have plenty of projects to keep us busy. With so much going on it has become challenging to keep track of it all and report it in sufficient detail to our members. We hope to improve this over the coming months and have started by creating a new Activities section on the NZGS website for logged-in users. This summarises all our major activities and projects, with progress updates and contact details if you want to find out more.

Branches

Branch activities, after a year where face-to-face contact has been challenging, are starting to ramp up again and we’re looking forward to a series of great talks.

There are some big changes afoot in some of our branches. In the Waikato both Kori Lentfer and Andrew Holland are stepping down after 12 and 10 years in the role respectively. Jerry Spinks has stepped down from his role in Wellington, and Christoph Kraus has stepped up to take his place alongside Shirley Wang, Aimee Rhodes and Safia Moniz. Perhaps most excitingly of all, a new branch has been set up by Frances Neeson in Gisborne, which is a great indication of the growth in the area.

I’d like to thank all our branch coordinators for their hard work; without their efforts the NZGS would be far less useful and fun. I’d also like to welcome our new branch coordinators and wish them all the best. If you’d like to see more activities in your region please contact the management committee or your branch coordinator and offer to help out. We’re always keen to welcome new volunteers!

Webinars

Following the success of our webinars last year we are starting the process of developing a series of webinars for the coming twelve months. We are also able to arrange for international speakers to present to us all online. Please contact the NZGS committee lead if you have any suggestions for either individual presenters or topics of interest.

Technical interest groups

We are considering setting up technical interest groups modelled on the success of our Young Professionals Group. These would operate in a similar manner to the current branches but would comprise members across the country who share an interest in a particular topic. Suggestions for these groups include “Central and local government employees”, “Registered Professional Engineering Geologists”, or “Ground improvement”. To be successful these groups need to have a large enough membership to be vibrant but be small enough that their topics are not of general interest to most NZGS members and might therefore not be discussed in our other forums. If you would like to set up and coordinate one of these groups please contact me.

Conferences and events

Great progress is being made on the development of a one-day symposium on climate change in geotechnics hosted jointly by NZGS and Engineering New Zealand. Scheduled for 30 September this year, the event will be hosted in multiple centres to minimise travel and cost. Led by Jen Smith (NZGS Committee member) and Tania Williams (Engineering NZ general manager) this event is bound to be very popular and will provide great value. Save the date now!

We are also working on a series of future international conferences that we would like to host in New Zealand over the next eight years. Watch this space for more news soon.

Young Professionals activities

Our Young Professionals’ Group is going from strength to strength under the stewardship of Helen Hendrickson. She has received great support from Miles Buob who is leading the development of a series of short training modules aimed at helping new graduates with implementing their university learning into professional practice.

We have also appointed three Young Professionals to support our linkages with the three international societies that we represent in New Zealand. They will report to the committee through Helen, and work closely with our Australasian Vice Presidents for each of the international societies. These new representatives are:

  • Sarah Barrett to represent IAEG
  • Nima Taghipouran to represent ISSMGE
  • Romy Ridl to represent ISRM

Building Code Advocacy and standards

I have continued to work with MBIE representing the geotechnical profession on their Building Code Advisory Panel (CAP – formerly known as BCTRAG). This group meets quarterly to raise technical issues and recommend improvements for MBIE to consider. If you have any issues that you’d like raised with MBIE please contact me.

We are also working with MBIE on updates to NZS4431 and will soon be involved in NZS3604, and are assisting MBIE and Engineering New Zealand with the scoping of a series of projects implement the key recommendations from the Seismic Risk Working Group. Key among these are updates to B1/VM4 (foundation design) and the possibility of removing retaining walls from B1/VM4 and putting this content instead into a new Verification Method covering slope stability, retaining walls and rockfall protection.

Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering Modules

We are working closely with Engineering NZ and MBIE to finalise the Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering modules. These were originally published in “preliminary draft” form and are now almost ready for final publication. We expect that Modules 2-6 will be published later this year. Module 1 is also nearly complete, but as discussed at our Symposium its publication status is not yet fully determined. I am working very closely with MBIE, Engineering New Zealand and our sister societies NZSEE and SESOC on this rather challenging topic. We expect more information to be available on this in the very near future.

International representation

The NZGS is represented on numerous international technical committees. These are summarised on our website, and short progress reports are presented later in this edition of Geomechanics News. 

New Zealand Geotechnical Database Strategic Plan

A joint MBIE/EQC project is being developed to provide a plan for the NZGD. The system is considered a very successful model and has buy-in from many stakeholders. However, it was identified in 2019 that, in part due to its age and part through limited investment, the NZGD had some age-related technical deficiencies that limited its value and needed a strategic vision so as to set the direction for future development and governance. I have been working with Engineering NZ to help scope this project and ensure that the voices of NZGS members are heard.

Conclusion

My two years as chair have been dominated by the impact of Covid-19 on our society and profession. Despite the many challenges this posed, the NZGS and the sector as a whole appear to be busy and largely successful. We have a huge work programme, and some compromises will have to be made if we’re to make real progress on the most important issues. The activities described above are only a part of what we’re working on, and more information on all is available on the NZGS website.

Our current priorities are our training courses, branch events and webinars, the Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering Modules, and our liaison role with MBIE. We are truly grateful for your ongoing support and would welcome any offers from members who would like to become more involved to help us drive the other projects forward.

 

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ISSN 01116851