Athfield tower block could face demolition

One of Wellington's most distinctive council housing blocks, the Ian Athfield-designed Arlington Tower, may have to be demolished because it is earthquake-prone.

The block, which features some Athfield flourishes including three big glassed communal laundry areas braced off one wall, has been assessed as meeting just 25 per cent of the new building standards.

Strengthening and refurbishment could cost as much as knocking it down and putting up a new block, said Wellington City Council property and housing director Greg Orchard.

Four years ago the council estimated that upgrading the tower was going to cost $20 million.

Mr Orchard said a decision on the future of the Mount Cook building would be made next year but, in the interim, the council would be acting on engineering advice to brace the stairways to ensure they did not collapse in a big quake.

The building, which has been yellow stickered, is the last of the council's big housing blocks identified in 2008 as requiring major upgrade work.

"It was always going to be the last in our 10-year upgrade programme." He said there were a number of problems with the block. The lifts stopped only on every second floor, and the 77 units were small. It had 42 bedsits, 22 one-bedroom apartments and two two-bedroom apartments.

Modifications proposed included reducing the number of bedsit units, improving access and building another lift shaft, providing extra outdoor spaces, including new balconies, and incorporating sustainable design features. "We are looking at what our options are," Mr Orchard said.

"At a high level it looks as though the cost of upgrading - dealing with all the issues and strengthening - is nearly as expensive as putting up a new building."

An engineering assessment report for the council said the building could resist lateral forces greater than 100 per cent of new building standards in one direction but it was just 25 per cent in the other. This indicated the building was earthquake prone and at 10 to 25 times greater risk than a new building designed and built to current standards.

Architecture Centre president Christine McCarthy said the Arlington Tower was an important building for Wellington and part of the Arlington complex which included an innovative mix of medium and high density housing in the city.

The block, which was designed in the 1960s and completed in 1976, reflected work that was being done in Japan about that time.

She said that if council could do it up for the same cost as rebuilding it, then why not save it?

Besides, she said, any attempt to rebuild a building of the same size in that area could well run into opposition.

Julia Gatley, of the University of Auckland, who wrote a book on Athfield architecture, said the tower block was one of his earliest large commissions and he brought a sculptural style to the concrete high-rise building.

She believed that modern buildings like this needed to be considered for their heritage value.

Mr Athfield could not be contacted for comment.

The Dominion Post