Wellington Scoop

Environment Court confirms heritage value of Gordon Wilson Flats


The Environment Court has ruled that Wellington’s Gordon Wilson Flats have significant heritage value – architecturally, socially and technically – and should not be removed from the city council’s heritage list.

The decision comes as a result of an appeal by the Architectural Centre against the delisting of the building.

The Gordon Wilson Flats were built by the government in 1959 and contain 87 residential units. The building, now owned by Victoria University, has been empty for five years since there were issues about parts of its concrete facade falling off.

The Architectural Centre opposes the university’s wish to demolish the building, and believes it could be used as housing for students or staff or for social housing.

News from Architectural Centre
The Architectural Centre is thrilled that the Environment Court has upheld our appeal against Plan Change 81 which proposed to delist the heritage building Gordon Wilson Flats in order to facilitate its demolition.

“Gordon Wilson Flats is a hugely important building in New Zealand’s architectural history. It is a rare example of high-rise social housing built under a National government, and was at the leading edge of progressive post-war architecture. It is one of only two such buildings in the country and reflects an important part of our social housing history” said Christine McCarthy, President of the Architectural Centre.

“We hope that with this clear statement about the importance of the building’s heritage value that the Gordon Wilson Flats will be given the TLC it deserves.”

The decision noted that the appeal process had:

“provided information that raises the heritage significance architecturally, socially and technically … of the GWF. Rather than diminishing the building’s heritage value … it has in fact strengthened the reasons for it to be listed” (at [51]).

The decision also noted that:

“It seems to us that in a time of apparent scarcity of social housing in Wellington and the increase in the level of homelessness reported in the media that great care should be taken before demolition. The fact that the proposed use of the site (post demolition) is the creation of a park/green space and a strategic land banked asset by Victoria University for some yet unidentified Victoria University purpose further strengthens our view” (at [55]).

The Gordon Wilson Flats is a memorial to possibly our most important government architect. Gordon Wilson was an advocate for improved living conditions who facilitated innovative housing designs during a time which parallels our own present housing crisis. He is one of our country’s unsung architectural heroes. The flats were one of only two high-rise state housing blocks built to the same design under a National government. The other National government high-rise state flats is Upper Grey’s Ave Flats in Auckland. The design of the building drew from progressive international architecture including Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, and was contemporary with the London County Council’s famous Alton West slab block housing. The Gordon Wilson Flats is an early, if not the first, use of mechanically-ventilated internal bathrooms in domestic architecture in our country, and a rare example of maisonette planning in New Zealand. These are two-storied flats which were considered to create the impression of living in a house, as distinct from living in a flat.

The building is also technologically-significant. Its foundations are thought to be nationally unique, and the way it was diagonally-constructed was also a first in New Zealand. More significantly, Gordon Wilson Flats was the first fully-instrumented building used in seismic research in the country. The WCC proposal earlier this year to instrument buildings to better understand their performance during earthquakes is an idea which can be traced, in this country, to the scientists of the Dominion Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) Laboratory who tested the seismic characteristics of Gordon Wilson Flats in similar ways.

While years of deferred maintenance means that the facade needs significant repair to prevent the cladding from falling off, the building was well made, as was typical of the Ministry of Works, and the main structure of the building is sound.

Gordon Wilson Flats is a large presence in our inner-city landscape. According to the WCC’s first heritage inventory in 1995, it contributed to establishing a new urban scale. The architecture of its post-war modernism is gaining appreciation around the world as representing a brave new world which pro-actively engaged with 1950s housing shortages and aimed to curb the problems of urban sprawl. Gordon Wilson Flats is a valiant architecture which represents New Zealand’s assertive engagement with important social issues.

The Architectural Centre supports its retention because it is an important heritage building which if repaired can provide much needed inner-city housing.


  1. Iona Pannett, 11. August 2017, 9:02

    Good decision, building is significant but I don’t underestimate the challenge of retaining it. [via twitter]

  2. Mary M, 11. August 2017, 10:27

    It was wrong to needlessly evict poor people living in this structurally sound building and leave it empty for 5 years with a desire to demolish it. How the hell did VUW get to own this valuable state housing?

  3. ND, 11. August 2017, 10:42

    The Mayor says he’ll penalise land bankers and yet that is what VUW intended to do for 20 years.

  4. CC, 11. August 2017, 12:17

    The best thing about this decision is that it has undone the all-too-common gaming of the district plan that is played by owners/developers, Council planning officers and tame commissioners who are paid by the Council but claim to be independent. And, who were the commissioners in this case?
    Unfortunately, the RMA has been now been gutted to the point that dubious Resource Consent practices are now almost beyond scrutiny unless challenged by ‘fat wallet’ appellants.

  5. Citizen Joe, 11. August 2017, 13:05

    There just has to be a developer who can make a decent return from refurbishing the building! There are millions of dollars of embodied energy in the building waiting to be sustainably used for another 50-100 years. It’s a fantastic site for housing whether it be social, affordable, medium to even high end apartments. People can walk to work or study. No need for a car, though there are ample parking spaces available. Indeed the car parking should be waived as part of any resource consent to refurbish GWF. The city and harbour views from the top must be amazing. I know real estate agents who have already put sale figures for GWF apartments done up to a ‘modern and nice’ standard at $450,000 – $550,000.

    For VUW to demolish and land bank as a grass lawn (note no trees intended) for 20 years shows true contempt for the housing situation in Wellington by the ivory tower academics up on Kelburn Parade. How can WCC support VUW when the Mayor has already said he’ll penalise land bankers? If WCC housing bureaucrats see GWF as ‘non-aligned’ with their current housing policy, then rewrite the policy so that it is aligned with heritage, economic and environmental objectives.

    So, VUW should be ‘encouraged’ to put GWF back on the market to give somebody who is in the business of providing housing the opportunity to provide for 150 people in 87 dwellings whilst keeping GWF true to its heritage values. WCC should compare and contrast this with doing the economics of doing the same on some green field site on a suburban hillside.

  6. Daryl Cockburn, 11. August 2017, 14:47

    It was always a no-brainer. Test its value at the market

  7. Andy Mellon, 12. August 2017, 10:50

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with you all about the GWF. They’re an eyesore and a blot on the landscape, and no amount of internal refurbishment would solve that problem.

    With respect to VUW and the housing situation, as far as I can tell from having walked up the Terrace in recent times, and having seen numerous articles on stuff about it, the University have been converting office blocks into student accommodation, which reduces the burden on Wellington’s already stretched rental market. Seems to me like VUW are a net contributor to helping solve the housing issues; perhaps that’s why the council have been accommodating in this issue.

    As for structurally sound… Is it really?

  8. CC, 12. August 2017, 11:44

    Why be afraid of your own opinion Andy? Is it that it is different to the expert opinions that persuaded the Court to overrule Andy Foster and Mark Peck’s decisions as Independent Commissioners (cough)? Is it that you are a qualified arbiter of good architecture and design? Is it that you may feel the majority of opinion may be opposed to your view? Of course, it probably has no reference to the fact that the WCC has already done a widely acclaimed job of revitalising its own social housing stock which had been regarded as eyesore territory but without the international references of its design, purpose and forward thinking internal layouts that underlies the bones of the GWF.

  9. Andy Mellon, 12. August 2017, 13:21

    If it was obvious to all as you seem to think, then perhaps the Environment Court may have been convinced to record a unanimous decision. But of course, only qualified architects and designers can have an opinion on aesthetics. Judging by the responses on the internet (91% of survey responders on Stuff want them knocked down out of a survey group of 10,400) and to people who I’ve spoken to, the experts are in the minority when it comes to assessing the aesthetic appeal of GWF, but of course it seems that the rest of us plebs don’t deserve an opinion that counts.

  10. Neil Douglas, 12. August 2017, 13:57

    Andy, Can’t help you regarding beauty since as philosopher David Hume said “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” However regarding converting office blocks on the Terrace, I think you will find that VUW leases buildings rather than redeveloping and/or owning them. Three recent examples are:

    Joan Stevens, 132 The Terrace, was converted from offices to student accommodation by Maurice Clark and sold to a German investor for $15.9million in 2011. Clark bought it for $6.25 million in a mortgagee sale after the failure of Petherick Properties. VUW leases the 242 room hostel for $1.4million a year (12 year lease).

    Katharine Jermyn Hall, 100 Boulcott St (diagonally opposite Joan Stevens), was converted from offices by Maurice Clark into a student hostel of 390 beds and sold in 2015 for $33.3million. VUW leases the building.

    47 Boulcott St was formerly a 15 floor office building last used by Internal Affairs and was bought by, yes you guessed it, Maurice Clark for $5.1million, refurbished for $7.4million and sold to a Wellington investor for $14.3million in 2013. VUW leases the 180-bed building for $1.1m a year.

    So all three were formerly office buildings which Maurice Clark spotted as bargains for conversion into student hostels. GWF is different because it is not office space so it’s unlikely that Maurice Clark would be interested.

    So why did VUW buy GWF? Apparently to ‘convert’ to a grass lawn for 20 years and wait for student demand to grow i.e. ‘land banking.’ VUW has no intention to help solve Wellington’s housing shortage. Its objective is to educate students and make a return for its shareholders.

  11. andy foster, 12. August 2017, 21:43

    It is pretty obvious that virtually none of the commentators here have read either the original Council decision which I chaired, or the Environment Court decision, possible exception Andy Mellon. Another reply in several parts because they are long:

    Mary M – background to the eviction of tenants. Housing NZ owned the GW building and had just spent $1.5 million in refurbishing it (so clearly could not be accused of neglect) when the building started ‘spooling’ – in simple terms water had got through the concrete (evidence said it was built somewhat on the cheap and with thinner concrete than other similar buildings), rusting / expanding the reinforcing and causing concrete to start falling off the outside of the building. In short it has ‘concrete cancer’ and the evidence pretty clearly said that would spread progressively across the entire facade. Equally clearly HNZ could not keep people living in the building at risk of concrete falling on them. They came to the view that the building was not economic to restore and strengthen. VUW purchased the building.

    CC – I am sorry you are unwell with a cough. Can I suggest while recuperating that you read our ‘tame commissioners’ report‘ . It was reported to the Council on 11 May 2016. It runs to 234 pages, so you can obviously tell that it was simply a rubber stamping exercise. In all seriousness I suggest you attend a resource consent hearing or two or plan change hearing or two. I think you will find commissioners take their role exceedingly seriously.
    You mention the Council’s (multi-award winning) housing upgrade programme. In some cases we have upgraded and strengthened existing buildings, but in many cases the older buildings were demolished because it was not viable to keep them – go and visit Arlington as an example. The other point to make is that the entire programme would be utterly unaffordable for the Council were it not for a Crown Grant of $220,000,000. I don’t think that beneficence is available for the Gordon Wilson building.

    Andy Foster
    Chair, Plan Change 81 hearing

  12. andy foster, 12. August 2017, 22:02

    Now to the nub of the issue – Neil Douglas you say Maurice Clark would ‘be unlikely to be interested.’ 100% correct. Maurice appeared as a witness for VUW along with expert witnesses assessing the economics of refurbishing the building in any one of several different configurations (for student/social/saleable housing, university use, etc), and engineering evidence about the building condition – and yes we did of course do a site visit through the building. Maurice’s conclusion was that ‘the building is incapable of economic use by anyone for any purpose’.

    The financial gap (ie the difference between what a building would be worth post strengthening and refurbishment and the amount you would need to spend on it) was calculated at negative $17,000,000. So to make it work financially VUW would have to ‘sell it’ for negative $17,000,000.

    Citizen Joe – what that means is there does not have to be a developer who could make it work. If we as commissioners had thought there was any realistic chance that somebody could take the building on we would almost certainly have turned down the de-listing of the building. We were very careful in our decision, contemplating other heritage buildings under threat of demolition, to say that if the heritage values were greater and/or the financial gap smaller, that we might have reached a different conclusion.

  13. andy foster, 12. August 2017, 22:25

    And finally! Andy Mellon – you are 100% correct. The Environment Court was not unanimous. The two commissioners declined the delisting, but the Judge concluded the delisting should stand. The Court also heard from 6 heritage experts, and 2 lawyers called by the Architecture Centre (appellants) – we heard from precisely none. We had a number of advocates, and two expert witnesses who didn’t attend the hearing so little weight in law can be placed on them. We always thought that on appeal a more organised appellant might do better than they did at the hearing. I have little doubt from reading the Court decision that the parties also bought other information to the Court which was not presented to us. They persuaded the two commissioners that GW had significant heritage value (we concluded it was only moderate at best, as does Council’s Heritage listing), and therefore the economics didn’t really come into it. They concluded that the economic question should be answered through a future resource consent application should the owner seek demolition.

    Judge Thompson however was unequivocal, echoing Maurice Clark. He said: “So the ultimate question has to be whether the moderate heritage value attributed to the building in the District Plan is sufficient to require its retention, by an organisation or organisations who cannot presently use it, and see no feasible future use for it whether in its present form or in any presently conceivable adaptive form, when there is a perfectly sensible and productive alternative use for its site. The answer, very plainly in my view is No. Re-adapted in some way, the building might be a nice to have on one narrow view of things, but the cost of doing that, and the lack of foreseeable utility mean, on any realistic evaluation, that the opportunity cost completely outweighs any benefit.”

    CC – I don’t think the Judge was any tamer than we were!

    I don’t know how the University will respond to the decision. What I would be pretty well 100% confident of is that nobody is likely to step up and take on and deliver refurbishing /strengthening the building. If the decision stands, I suspect the building may be left decaying for many years to come. We have many really valuable heritage buildings in the city needing strengthening. Massive progress has been made over the last decade or so, and the number of buildings needing strengthening is coming down all the time. Some of those will need fairly significant philanthropic and public support. I am working with other parties and the owners on some of those right now, yes fighting to save them after Council decisions to allow their demolition. However Gordon Wilson would need a sum (above its actual economic value) that would be higher than any heritage building in town except possibly the Town Hall and maybe St Gerards.

    I hope all that helps put some context around the decisions we made and the issues that were in front of us, and then in front of the Court – and the issues still facing the GW building which no Court decision can make easier.

    Regards, Andy

  14. syrahnose, 13. August 2017, 0:06

    Well argued Andy Foster (and I’m not often convinced by much of what I’ve seen from Wellington’s government over the last decade or so). It seems pretty obvious the building doesn’t have good bones. What I have often seen here on Scoop is a tendency to preserve mediocre or 3rd rate ‘heritage’ architecture at any cost. When, instead, there are possibilities to create something new and interesting and more efficient in its place. Whereas Wellington’s outlook with hills and bay is wonderful, its skyline is not really memorable, more worldfamousinNZ at best. It seems like there is plenty of room to knock down old buildings no one would notice anywhere else in the world as special and build something new that they might.

  15. Daryl Cockburn, 13. August 2017, 9:40

    Yes Andy but you’ll remember your first two decisions requiring the demolition of what was proposed as probably the best narrow houses in NZ at 245 Adelaide Rd. The 3rd decision stopped that, wisely. It’s having an open home today at noon. Check it out
    And I know Odlins and the Herd St PO were in luxury price brackets, but all these buildings were clear cases for demolition, wrongfully.
    I’m a pre-WW2 baby so hate waste including the energy of demolition and cartage of 87 maisonettes to landfills. How do you know for a fact they can’t be refurbished without first putting them to the market?

  16. Citizen Joe, 13. August 2017, 9:42

    Andy, You expouse such confidence in predicting the property market! You are 100% confident no developer would take on redeveloping Gordon Wilson Flats because it would be ‘uneconomic’. Putting aside the important difference between economic and financial viability, you appear to be discouraging any potential developers, perhaps in order to justify your original decision to delist the heritage status of GWF. Surely, the appropriate stance now for WCC is to be at least neutral? Preferably you could adapt to the court’s judgement and provide encouragement to developers to restore GWF so as to house 150 people and help relieve the Wellington housing shortage.

    WCC should also consider making it known that it would help fund redevelopment given the positive economics of embodied energy, infrastructure, social and transport savings from its central location on the one hand and its heritage status on the other. The alternative of demolition and a 20 year grass lawn is surely ‘land banking’ which your Mayor Justin Lester is on record as saying he will penalise.

  17. Daryl Cockburn, 13. August 2017, 9:49

    And Andy, would you support consent for 87 new dwellings of a similar bulk & location but improved common spaces i.e. lifts & stairs, and escalators to VUW as their stated preference?

  18. Piglet, 13. August 2017, 10:47

    I can’t believe that it is not possible to rehabilitate GWF! Sure the building looks really shabby now but that is due to the owner VUW who has let it run down so as to encourage demolition. As VUW has never had any intention to redevelop GWF, it begs the question whether a deal was done when the building was ‘sold’ by Housing NZ. What were the assumptions behind VUW’s purchase decision that made it commercially viable for them? What assurance did WCC give that the necessary consents would be given? On what basis did developer Maurice Clark give evidence? As Daryl Cockburn advocates, put GWF on the market and as Citizen Joe suggests the WCC should help not hinder the speedy provision of housing in such a great location whilst adhering to heritage values determined by experts.

  19. Daryl Cockburn, 13. August 2017, 10:47

    In the event you haven’t seen why the first two decisions for 245 Adelaide Rd were wrong, it’s having open homes for the next 3 Sundays at noon. The Council was confident it had to be demolished for access to car-parking in spite of its townscape heritage status. The Gordie Willy could be in a similar bracket following further study. Thinking is where it’s at.

  20. CC, 13. August 2017, 12:40

    Cr. Foster – You comment, “I suggest you attend a resource consent hearing or two or plan change hearing or two.” Been there, done that – no surprise as to what gave rise to the cynicism. You might care to quell the doubts shared by some critics by responding to the following:
    Q 1: Who appoints the independent commissioners?
    Q 2: Who pays them?
    Q 3: If Commissioners are Councillors, can they be independent?
    Q 4: If they’re independent, how come they get to vote on their own decisions?
    Q 5: Is there concern among Councillors that it is not uncommon for WCC RC decisions to be re-worked or overturned on appeal?

    Thank you for referencing Judge Thompson’s minority opinion. He gave weight to the Council’s ‘moderate heritage value’ designation – one that was apparently not given as much validity by the two Commissioners. The Judge also asserts the owner’s private property rights which, as you will be aware, has been an aspect of the RMA that has been vexatious and is in no small measure responsible for the systematic gutting of the original legislation. On this point, one needs to ask: do developers and property owners enter purchase agreements on the understanding that the District Plan will be altered to suit their needs? Some decisions seem to suggest this.

  21. Christine McCarthy, 13. August 2017, 18:14

    I agree with Andy Foster that commissioners take their role very seriously, RMA decisions are complex and many evidential factors contribute to panel decisions. I doubt that anyone in those decision-making roles is flippant in any sense. I would also like to reinforce his point that the original decision stated that if the evidence infront of the panel had indicated higher heritage values then their decision may have been different.

    Two things distinguish the heritage evidence at the Environment Court from the original hearing panel. Firstly, the Environment Court took into account evidence from three experts which the hearing panel gave insignificant weight because at that hearing the expertise was presented by opponents in submissions. All of these people had expert qualifications and their evidence was given weight at the Environment Court. Secondly additional research on the heritage values of the building was undertaken between the two hearings strengthening the evidence on heritage. Those differences resulted in a finding that the building has significant heritage values and should be listed.

  22. Ben Schrader, 14. August 2017, 14:38

    Gordon Wilson’s stature as New Zealand’s pre-eminent mid-century architect is only going to increase. To destroy one of his major works is akin to taking a knife to a McCahon. [Read Ben Schrader’s complete opinion here.]