$60m makeover for former Defence HQ

HANK SCHOUTEN
Last updated 10:33 26/07/2014
MBIE building
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ Zoom
JOB DONE: Developer Maurice Clarke and MBIE property manager Nicola Bowler in the building's restored marble-lined foyer.

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Wellington developer Maurice Clark took a gamble when he bought the vacant old Defence Headquarters more than three years ago.

He is now clearly proud of what he's done to resurrect a 74-year-old building that's part of Wellington's heritage fabric.

And although he's reluctant to disclose the figures, he's clearly profited from his knack for spotting potential that others miss.

The building had been empty for years when his McKee Fehl Constructors company bought it off AMP Capital Properties in early 2011.

It was just before the first Christchurch earthquake, an event that suddenly made seismic ratings a top priority for everybody in the property business.

Clark believed the building had good bones because of his previous experience doing up the Tower Building in Customhouse Quay, which was built five years earlier by the same team of government architects.

When he bought it, the old Defence building was seismically assessed as 70 per cent of new building standard, but Clark believed it was substantially better.

"We talked about what needed to be done [to get it up to 100 per cent of new building standard] but then decided 'let's test it'."

It was empty at the time so they were able to run tests that could never be done with an occupied building.

Concrete floors and steel beams were sliced and 50-tonne jacks were used to stress-test about 20 beam- column joints.

None of the welds broke and engineers, who analysed the figures, recalculated the building as 180 per cent of new building standard - enough to withstand an earthquake that might be expected in Wellington once in every 2500 years.

That was a key selling point as Clark began looking for tenants to make refurbishment a viable proposition.

Initially he was uncertain what the building would be used for.

"We looked at a number of plans, including a student hostel, a hotel, apartments, economical offices or mid- level offices, which is where we've gone."

Prospective tenants were contacted and Clark put in bids to provide head office space for the ministries of education and health.

"We started negotiating with education and we thrashed out an agreement to develop and lease."

However, education had to make way for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment when the Government decided its then new super- ministry had priority.

With a tenant and plans sorted, and with McKee Fehl awarding itself the upgrade contract, the whole package was sold to property investors Argosy Group.

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Work started with stripping out old fittings and services. Heritage features that had to be protected and restored included the facade, the caramel- coloured Hanmer marble foyer, staircases, bronze window frames and terrazzo sills.

A key design element in the redevelopment involved making better use of the old semi-enclosed courtyard out the back.

What used to be courtyard space is now a ground floor reception area and public cafe and the airspace above it was used to extend the floors and provide an eight-level glass-topped atrium.

The front of the building was also taken back to how it might have looked back in 1940.

A big glass canopy was removed and a new granite forecourt was laid.

Clark said the building's big floor plates, its central location - midway between the Beehive and Midland Park - and modest rental cost were key selling points.

MBIE was getting quality office space for an annual rent of $395 per square metre, well below the $600 per sqm they would have had to pay for a new building.

This clearly appealed to a Government determined to cut the cost of housing its big Wellington public service workforce.

"We are happy because we've got a very happy client and for a builder- developer that means a lot."

"Fundamentally my original vision when I bought it has come to fruition," he said.

- The Dominion Post

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