Wellington Scoop

A case for moving the Library

civic square two buildings

by Bill Beale
The Ian Athfield designed Wellington Central Library that was built in 1991 was placed just a stone’s throw, and a quarter turn around the square, from the 1940 Centennial Library building that it replaced. That building continues to provide great service as the City Gallery.

With the postmodern showpiece closed since March 2019 and an expensive case for treatment, I think that the best option for reopening our central library service would be to take another turn around the square, and build a new library building on the site of the grievously damaged and (surely) soon to be demolished salmon-pink Tuscan villa, otherwise known as the Civic Administration Building.

At least that’s what the Council’s decision should be when they meet next Thursday after 18 months of talk, and decide to get the library moving again.

Here’s a leaked copy of my memo to them before this important decision…

Kia Ora Councillors,

Very soon you will decide on whether to rebuild or fix up the Central Library which has been unusable for 18 months since you closed it because of the seismic design issues.

Your preferred solution at the start of the consultation process was Option C, the ‘high level remediation’ which at between $175 million and $200 million was also the most expensive.

There have been some tense debates during that time both inside and outside the Council. But a well-run public consultation process has provided better evidence for a decision to proceed. Having participated in that, and listened carefully to all of the oral submissions as you did, we should now strongly support Option E, ‘a new build on another Te Ngākau Civic Precinct site’.

Here’s why:

We heard expert opinion that the estimated costs of remediation could well be too low. Engineers spoke from their experience with specific projects and warned that estimates of time and cost for seismic strengthening projects have a high degree of uncertainty.

A new building to house the library would cost less than the $160 million put forward in the consultation document. A future-proof, strong, long-lasting building could be built for $100 million with the same floorspace the library occupies in the current building.

The consultation document noted that demolishing the existing building would add time to “resolve heritage issues”. So if you have another site in Te Ngākau you should choose that. The site of the vacant and damaged Civic Administration Building (CAB) seems the best possibility. Demolish this quickly and you have a site ready to build on.

While the new library building is underway, you can develop a plan to retain the heritage features of the Athfield building while finding a new use for it that will benefit Wellington again.

Let’s look in more detail at each of these points.

Remediation option

By your own estimates, even the High Level option falls short on the key assessment factors you are using. These include, future-proofing, seismic safety, resilience, accessibility, response to climate change, and lifespan.

The high level remediation cost you estimated, of up to $200 million, is well above the new build. Some have questioned whether the remediation figures are too high. But of those who gave oral submissions, practicing engineers warned that there is a serious risk of major cost escalation. Each was able to give specific examples from their own experience. Some mentioned the Town Hall strengthening project and its substantial time and cost overruns since 2013. You are well aware of these and probably weary of hearing them again. They were not your fault of course; the first estimates were made before your involvement here. But to fail now to factor in the likelihood of ‘unforeseen’ problems during any remediation would be unwise. Cost blowouts are too much of a risk.

Building a new library

You have good information on the costs and issues involved in building a new library from your experience with the wonderful Waitohi Library that opened in Johnsonville late last year. For experience on a larger scale, we have an example of what was achieved with the Tūranga library project in Christchurch. Completed in 2018 after a 3 year building time, it has become a much loved part of Cathedral Square, and exemplifies architectural design that excels in strength, functionality and beauty.

It was one of 4 finalists in the International Federation of Library Associations Public Library Award, the winner of an international award for Structures in Extreme Conditions from the Institution of Structural Engineers, a winner of NZ awards for both Structural and Seismic Engineering, the 5 Green Star Rating from the NZ Green Building Council, the NZIA Winner for Public Architecture, and the Supreme award at Property Council New Zealand’s RLB Property Industry Awards.

And there’s more here.

Wellington’s new library building

The current library building has two floors leased out as office space, and a basement car park that probably won’t be required in a new library. Your estimate for a building of 9,800 sqm (in May 2019) was $82.5 million including demolition of the existing building on the site. So round it up to $100 million for the equivalent of the current 11,500 sqm of library space. Pretty close to the proven cost and quality of Tūranga.

Of course the Wellington option shouldn’t be a carbon copy of Tūranga, and will be informed by the local needs, the specific geotechnical environment, and its position on the Te Ngākau precinct. But being able to learn from the Christchurch experience will be a real asset.

Deciding where to put it

The question in the consultation document “Why not pull it down and build a new library if it’s cheaper? “ was answered “some people believe the building has historical value… (and that)… time for resolving heritage issues has been included in the timeframes for Option D (New Build on the same site)”.

These issues are significant and can be avoided if another site on the precinct can be used.

The Civic Administration Building adjoins the library on the edge of Victoria Street where it curves into Wakefield Street. From inside Te Ngākau Civic Square, the building faces north-east into the morning sun.

But no one has enjoyed that view since the building was shuttered immediately following the November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake. It doesn’t have the love that the library building has either, being a peculiar salmon-pink imitation Tuscan villa with no risk of a Heritage listing any time soon.

There’s also a long-running dispute with insurers over the cost of fixing the building. In March 2017, the DomPost said “WCC needs to make a decision in coming months as to whether it repairs its civic administration building or demolishes it.” And when three years later NZ Herald reporter Georgina Campbell interviewed a council spokesperson (in August 2020) she was told that they are “still locked in negotiations with insurers”, and that “more extensive investigations are being carried out to assess the extent of the damage… (but the )… process has been hampered by discovery of new cracks in the floors.” You heard that right, new damage was slowing down the assessment of the damage.

Without knowing the details of the “discussions with insurers,” it is impossible to know for sure what other delays or costs might be involved. Four years of discussion without resolution in sight suggests it could be time to change tack. There is a real cost involved in having the asset lying idle, and a huge benefit in deciding the best course of action quickly and getting on with it.
It’s a great site though, with obvious potential for indoor/outdoor flow and a great café visible and accessible on the ground floor. Ideal for a brunch enjoying the morning sun on the edge of the square. It would help revitalise the precinct once more. And demolishing it won’t run into any heritage issues.

Repurposing the Athfield building

The cost and risk of remediating this for library use is too high to compete with a superior new building. But it is in a prime position and there will be another use for it that will be more valuable than just keeping the beloved nīkau palms and the basement carpark. Retaining ownership of the land, but selling or leasing the building could make sense, and so would exploring commercial uses with potential partners.

A library requires a very strong building due to floor loadings from the weight of tens of thousands of books. And as a public building that can have hundreds of people inside at any time, it demands the highest seismic strength ratings.

Because of the lighter loads involved, some combination of office space, council offices and apartments might be possible technically with less than the high level remediation required. The contents of any future conservation plan will also inform the decision.

The beauty of building the new library on the CAB site is that you will have the time to pursue these options for the Athfield building thoroughly without delaying the opening of Wellington’s future library.

Finally … Moving quickly to reopen the central library in a purpose-built strong and exciting new building for the future should now be the Council’s primary focus. May the force be with you. Kia Kaha!

Bill Beale is a proud Wellingtonian who has loved using the previous two Central Library Buildings.


  1. Iona Pannett, 17. October 2020, 10:06

    The current building can be repurposed to meet modern needs whilst still having lots of books. [via twitter]

  2. Local, 17. October 2020, 10:24

    The Central Library has neither a red sticker or a yellow sticker, is not earthquake prone or earthquake damaged. It just needs to be fixed and should have been years ago to make it a bit safer for the public. The Council should not go overboard, waste any more money or time on it, nor opt for a ridiculous costly complex option that will take years before it is re-opened.

  3. Diane Calvert, 17. October 2020, 11:12

    The public get a further say when a preferred solution is included in the long term plan consultation in March 2021 (when all the ⁦WgtnCC ⁩ proposed 10 year budget is outlined with some tough choices needed to be made). As an aside, spare a thought for those inner city apartment owners who do not have a swathe of experts on hand guiding them on their options to restrengthen. [via twitter.]

  4. Lindsay, 17. October 2020, 12:30

    City councillors were told this week that estimates for the cost of the new build options had increased to $167m – $183.3m (previously $156m – $160.7m) due to the inclusion of base isolation to make it comparable to Option C, the strengthening option, which is now estimated to cost less: $161.7m – $178.7m (previously $174.4m – $199.8m).

  5. Adam, 17. October 2020, 14:11

    Well said Mr Beale. Councillor Fitzsimons says … “public consultation showed the one thing Wellingtonians agree on is retaining a central library.” Well, yes. One would assume anyone not wanting that might not be someone who reads much media or much at all? And Bill is saying let’s build an even better library and sooner than a remediation of the current library. Like Bill, I say knock down the CAB (there’s no solid evidence the Tuscans ever reached Aotearoa) and build a cracking new library that will be open sooner, cost less and leaves the Athfield building to be enjoyed for another use? Thoroughly post post-modern. And who knows – maybe the eventual insurance pay out on the CAB could cover some of the cost of the new-build library and repurposing of Athfield’s Library. [Since Bill wrote his article, the council have released revised cost estimates which show the cost of strengthening the Athfield Library is less than building a new one, and reopening would happen nine months earlier.]

  6. claire, 17. October 2020, 16:47

    Diane Calvert: thanks for your sensible comments. I am very glad that any Library build or rebuild includes base isolators. This like the example in Victoria Street should become mandatory. We cannot put people at risk in a seismic zone any more. The idea of having affordable apartments in six storey buildings or higher is not going to happen anyway, with insurance costs and changing earthquake standards. So let’s start now and future proof our buildings.

  7. D'Esterre, 17. October 2020, 17:42

    Local: “The Central Library has neither a red sticker or a yellow sticker, is not earthquake prone or earthquake damaged. It just needs to be fixed and should have been years ago to make it safer for the public.” I wholeheartedly agree with this, and with the rest of your comment. Why can we in Wellington not strengthen and preserve our character buildings?

  8. Sean, 17. October 2020, 22:34

    As somebody who uses a library primarily for reading, the new Johnsonville library is in no way “wonderful” and assessed from the same standpoint of the size and diversity of its collection, the Christchurch library is simply an oversized branch library, not a central library. Those who point to these examples as exemplars are ensuring we may never get our central library back.

  9. D'Esterre, 17. October 2020, 23:53

    I’ll believe that we’ll get a resurrected library of the sort we used to have, when I can actually use it.

  10. Maralyn, 19. October 2020, 9:13

    Sean, I couldn’t agree more. I love libraries that are full of books, loads of shelves that you can browse through, some computer space but not a large area for these. The Johnsonville library is ghastly – books appear to be outnumbered by huge unusable steps and large areas for children to play, difficult to read sideways signs on the bookshelves, not at all reader friendly. Go to the Hutt Library, in fact the whole Hutt Civic Centre area, to see how successful a beautiful library and community space can be.