An eye for the potential of old buildings

20:40, Feb 22 2013
Maurice Clark
DEVELOPER: Maurice Clark checks out the room of 4th year student Kate Dixon, one of the first to make her home in Victoria University's new Boulcott Hall.

If there was a society for the Protection of Cruelty to Buildings, Maurice Clark would have to be patron.

The veteran developer and builder has a knack for picking up old dogs - sad, neglected and empty buildings whose owners have lost interest.

And he's got the nous to see beyond the tatty interiors and antiquated building services, he knows whether they are basically sound and has a fair idea who it might appeal to if a makeover is done.

Boulcott Hall
Boulcott Hall

The 69-year-old engineer, builder and developer has been involved in a string of developments on that theme in recent years. The most recent opened this week as Victoria University's new Boulcott Hall student residence.

When his company McKee Fehl Constructors bought it last year it was a scruffy, vacant, 14-storey black glass office block.

Internal Affairs, which had been there since it was built in the 1980s, had moved out and its European owners decided to quit their investment because they saw little prospect of finding new tenants.


Clark picked it up for $5.1 million, less than half the $10.7m the previous owners paid just five years earlier.

"It really was a dog but it had good bones. It was built by Chase [a prolific development company that went bust after the 1987 share market crash] and all the finishes were rubbish."

The cheap annealed glass, the lifts, partitions, building services and air conditioning were poor and he knew they had to go.

But he was sure it was basically sound because he knew the engineer who worked on the building back in the 1980s and he knew it could be brought up to 100 per cent of new building standard without too much difficulty.

Crucially he was able to persuade Victoria University that it would be ideal for conversion into hostel accommodation.

With a good tenancy assured, work began six months ago.

The building was strengthened by tying its columns to the perimeter beams.

The ugly black exterior was completely reglazed with toughened glass as the old glass was liable to crack from heat gain behind the new interior linings. The exterior is now mainly green and white glass.

The old office interiors and partitions were stripped out and the floors completely reconfigured so that it now has 15 student rooms, bathrooms and common rooms in each floor.

The 180 rooms, most of which will be filled by students from this weekend, are bright, warm and comfortable. It is a well appointed hostel within walking distance to each of the university's three city campuses.

The total project, including the building purchase, cost about $12.5m.

What was a mouldering liability is now a bankable asset with a solid tenant - the university has a 15-year lease with a starting rent of $1.1m a year - and Clark plans to sell and look for his next project.

The hostel is expected to go on the market in April with an asking price of around $15m, but Clark is already looking to do another hostel for the university.

Boulcott Hall is a repeat of his previous conversion of Randstad House on The Terrace into the Joan Stevens Hall of Residence. It was empty when he bought it in a mortgagee sale for $6.25m, spent $7m on the conversion and then sold it fully leased for $15.9m.

Clark has also been a driving force in resurrecting two other prominent older city buildings. He redeveloped the heritage-listed 1930s vintage old Tower Insurance Building in Customhouse Quay.

And more recently he took a huge bet on the long vacant former Defence House in Stout St. He could see its potential, picking that it was ripe for redevelopment either as a hotel or upgraded to rehouse a major Government agency.

He bought it off AMP Capital Properties in 2011 for $14m, spent something like $10m stripping it, doing seismic testing, commissioning plans for an extensive modernisation and secured a commitment from a plum tenant, the newly formed Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

On the strength of that Argosy Property paid $33.2m for the Stout St building and will spend another $46.6m funding the redevelopment, with the work being done by McKee Fehl.

It will be the latest in a long list of projects by McKee Fehl, a company Clark bought in 1986.

His list of major strengthening and refurbishment projects include Victoria University's Hunter Building, the old wooden Government Buildings, the Museum of Wellington City & Sea, and the Beehive.

The Dominion Post