Wellington Scoop

Let’s do it! Costs and risks reduced for Central Library strengthening

library revised 2

by Andy Foster
Thank you Wellington for your feedback on the future of our Central Library. Your input has been thoughtful, informative, and your views have been diverse. Many of you sympathised with us in the decision we have to make – recognising that there were pluses and minuses of each of the five options.

Exactly on the timeframe I set out in July when Council authorised a ‘Special Consultative Process’ – it is now time for the Council to make a decision. Councillors were fully briefed this week by officers and experts. The Council officers’ report will be published on Friday and we will make the decision on Wednesday week (October 28th).

When considering significant decisions, the Local Government Act requires us to provide the community with an assessment of all the practicable options, the information, time and opportunity to provide feedback, and that we must undertake this process with ‘an open mind.’

Councillors have done a great job of being open minded, of listening, and of allowing our community the time and opportunity to tell us what you think – and Wellingtonians you did that brilliantly!

We consulted on 5 options, 3 remediation options of differing levels of resilience (A – low, B – medium and C – high), and 2 new high resilience building options (D – existing site and E – new site in Civic Precinct), and provided information on several others (e.g. having multiple small libraries).

There were a few people who loudly proclaimed what ‘everyone’ wanted, and we should ‘just get on with it’, not bothering with consultation (i.e. Option A). Last year there was indeed advice from prominent experts that we could strengthen the existing building for $30-40 million. The problem with that became clear when we received the engineering and Quantity Surveyor (QS) advice in March. In a ‘moderate’ earthquake people in the building should be safe, but the building would be likely to sustain significant damage.

In addition to the structural issues that require remediation we need to replace services which are at the end of their life, as well as the modernise and refresh the library interior (a la Johnsonville’s Waitohi or Christchurch’s Tūranga) and the cost is $75 – 81 million. That is a lot to risk in a low resilience building, which may well fall below the earthquake prone assessment line if the EQ code is revised again.

With 1,456 written submissions, 60 oral submissions, and 1,000 people surveyed it was very clear that there is no one option favoured by ‘everyone’, and showed that consulting properly was exactly the right thing to do.

We asked about a range of things that mattered to people. Wellingtonians were (unsurprisingly) clear that you want a Central Library. The four things that consistently mattered most to people were safety, building resilience, cost and future proofing/flexibility.

Space for young people was a strong refrain in considering future proofing and flexibility. Speed was less important than getting it right. ‘Just getting on with it’ rated only 6th in submissions and 8th in the survey. Heritage value of the existing building was questioned by submitters more than it was accepted, and ranked only 8th (submissions) and 6th (survey), though it was universal that everyone wants to protect the iconic nikau palms. I agree!

So how did you rate the options?

Option D – demolish and rebuild was ranked top by submitters (42%) and by survey respondents (35%), Option C – full strengthening including base isolation was 2nd (submitters 31%, survey respondents 34%).

Combining the options, submitters favoured a new build (D and E) by 49% compared to the 42% for strengthening (A, B and C). However survey responses favoured strengthening the existing building by 52% compared to 45% for a new build.

In short, while Option D was the favoured option, the gap between this and Option C was slight – 11% in submissions and 1% in the survey.

The other important point to make is that cost and risk of cost escalation was significant to submitters, particularly those favouring demolition and a new building. I was pleased to hear this so strongly and it is something I hope will not be lost on Councillors in this decision and in Long Term Plan decisions to come.

During the consultation period, staff were also working with engineering, architectural, QS and construction experts. I pushed strongly for this because I knew that experts had varying creative ideas about how strengthening could be undertaken, and there were views that the costs for strengthening could be reduced. We do have a lot of first rate seismic engineers in Wellington!

This process has absolutely shown its worth. When we started consultation in July all we had was high level concept design. We have now taken designs to the next level, an advanced preliminary design. We did this to speed up delivery of whatever the chosen solution is, and to see if we could reduce cost and risk. It has absolutely showed its worth, and allowed cost saving through design changes, and provided more certainty around costs (i.e. reduced risk). The team collectively have done a brilliant job for all of us.

I will focus on Option C which is our officers’ recommendation. Where it was a fine balance between new build and strengthening, especially given the thoughtful submissions on cost and risk, I think the case for Option C is now a strong one.

The extensive presentation and Q & A that we received from officers and experts last Wednesday, and the multi-layered peer reviews, all gave significant comfort around design, costings and risk mitigation. Five of our city’s leading engineering firms and the work of architects has shown the design can support a modern, future proofed library which is safe. The QS numbers have been fully reviewed by a second QS firm. In short, this has been very thorough.

It is this work which has helped answer the issues rightly raised by submitters who supported a new build option.

The table below shows the revised costs through this expert process, which includes the addition of base isolation costs to Options D and E.

chart for library

Option C’s design innovations include raising the floor levels to address rising sea levels and help assist in access at ground level. Most importantly it can deliver a modern, future-proofed library.

library revised 3

What might our library look like?

It is an exciting opportunity to significantly enhance the look and feel of the building externally and internally. We will integrate the library much better to Te Ngākau Civic Precinct, and the plan is to also open onto Harris Street, which is currently a dead edge to the building. Essentially building panels need to be removed regardless to tie them back into the building, and panels on that side can be replaced by glass. That could mean looking out from upper floors though the nikau forest! There is the idea of a civic community space looking out onto Te Ngākau Civic Precinct. It all looks and sounds great.

Internally services will need to be replaced, modernised and lifted out of the basement (due to sea level rise). We’re talking heating, lighting, ventilation, plumbing, lifts etc. Most of these are at end of life, and will also be impacted by construction. We also want features like provision for devices, flexible people spaces and creative spaces. It is financially prudent to consider whether some low use stock should be stored off site to be accessible through any branch, and the extent to which other activities should continue to be housed in the building. We’ll think about whether Capital E or other community services can be included in the building. There will be café space – maybe more than one.

Nobody should be under any illusion that this is a big, complex, expensive job, and would have been regardless of the option chosen, but I, and I think all Councillors want to proceed with speed. This Council is eager to restore Te Ngākau Civic Precinct for Wellingtonians and visitors to enjoy.

I want the library to be part of downtown reactivation as soon as possible. That is why we also included funding in this year’s budget to progress necessary design alongside the consultation time period. Doing this we have saved six months. We plan to be able to share more news about developing Te Ngākau in the coming months.

Assuming Councillors give the green light on the 28th, we will get on with the more developed design. The funding will be included in the draft Long Term Plan for your collective consideration alongside all the other many demands there are on Council / ratepayers. Then the detailed design can be completed next year, and we can get construction underway.

I am looking forward to the detailed design process, our opportunity to reimagine the building inside and out. I want to deliver a welcoming, flexible, inclusive and modern people place we will love, bringing new life to our Te Ngākau Civic Precinct and city.

The expectation is for reopening in May 2025. Like most of you I can’t wait!

He waka eke noa.

Andy Foster is Mayor of Wellington


  1. Traveller, 17. October 2020, 13:56

    Congratulations to the Mayor and his team for three months of work which has resulted in the strongest and most persuasive case for saving the mighty Athfield Library, and making it even better.

  2. Helene Ritchie, 17. October 2020, 14:08

    It’s great that the Athfield library will not be demolished.
    Now it’s over to the wisdom of the mayor and councillors to still make the decision and one in the best all round interest of the city-current and future generations.

  3. BrooklynBrooklyn, 17. October 2020, 15:53

    This is great news, I am so relieved!

  4. Ben Schrader, 17. October 2020, 16:43

    I also think this is a terrific outcome. It will be brilliant if the library is opened up to Harris St; the present walkway on that side resembles the entry to a car parking building. Better access to Te Ngākau Civic Precinct will also be a boon.

    Best of all, the above proposal shows how a heritage building can be adaptively reused rather than fully demolished, conserving embedded carbon. This shows a real commitment to WCC’s sustainability goals. Well done!

  5. D'Esterre, 17. October 2020, 17:34

    I’m very glad that Wellington city doesn’t have the Bodleian to preserve. I didn’t make a submission in the end, because I knew that something like this would happen. When all the work is done, will we be left with a building which in any way resembles the Athfield building we currently have?

  6. Benoit Pette, 17. October 2020, 18:47

    I love it when the Mayor of our great little city takes the time to explain in great detail a decision, how it came and what’s next. Overall it feels like it was a robust process. Ka pai Mayor Foster and city councillors. Can’t wait for the grand re-opening! [via twitter]

  7. Dr Jenny Condie, 17. October 2020, 19:25

    After grilling the team for over an hour I was persuaded by their analysis and estimates. Details will be available in the paper later this month. [via twitter]

  8. Hel, 17. October 2020, 21:59

    So 49% through consultation prefer a new build compared to 42% who prefer strengthening. What is the point of consulting when the decision seems to be pre-ordained. [Survey responses favoured strengthening the existing building by 52% compared to 45% for a new build, and other issues were also considered, including cost estimates which were revised towards the end of the consultation period.]

  9. Sean, 17. October 2020, 22:24

    Plenty of code words that indicate the plan is to gut the books, magazines and other borrowing materials, just like Johnsonville or the new ChCh “library”. We won’t be getting the library back, just the shell of the building, with the inside being used for other purposes.

  10. Dave, 18. October 2020, 12:06

    Neither option is affordable unless you are happy with double digit rates rises.

    Council need to severely cut costs across the board and ditch any nice to haves and focus on the must haves like the 3 waters.

  11. Conor, 18. October 2020, 13:38

    Andy – can I ask why you are writing this at election time?

  12. Toni, 18. October 2020, 17:15

    The Chrischurch library is a massive void with a staircase in the middle which might look spectacular but then all that is left for books (not very many) and childrens play areas, meeting rooms, crafts area etc is around the edges of the floors. Not impressed!

  13. TrevorH, 19. October 2020, 7:39

    @Dave: I totally agree with you. We need to concentrate the bulk of funding for the foreseeable future on the 3 waters, as this article in the DomPost today by Joel McManus makes clear. Without clean water and effective sanitation, there is no city.

  14. Hilary Phillips, 19. October 2020, 13:37

    I made a submission begging for the Central Library to remain a library, not a ‘modern’ empty space with hardly any books. However, I can see that my plea fell on deaf ears. It seems we must at all costs be ‘modern’, and books just aren’t ‘modern’ enough. That artist’s impression was obviously done by someone who doesn’t read very much, if at all, and in all the ‘discussion’ there seems to be no mention of the book collection, or indeed anything to do with what the library is primarily for. This is very ominous!

  15. Trish, 19. October 2020, 20:53

    Hilary Phillips. The same warnings were made about destroying the Dominion Museum, replacing all those bugs stuck on pins with a Disney entertainment centre on the waterfront. You can see how well that turned out!

  16. Andrew H, 20. October 2020, 14:28

    Let me get this right. The most popular pick by Submissions was Option D. The most popular pick from the Survey was Option D.
    “The other important point to make is that cost and risk of cost escalation was significant to submitters, particularly those favouring demolition and a new building. I was pleased to hear this so strongly.” So you pick a different option which also happens to be the most expensive one.

  17. Julienz, 21. October 2020, 3:49

    My suggestion was build on the current decentralised model. If they want a bigger population in the CBD, as the Draft Spatial Plan indicates they do, then more public spaces (indoor and outdoor given our weather) should be part of the plan. You can reserve material and get it delivered to any branch at no cost for now anyway and since lockdown I have found myself increasingly moving to digital material despite being scarily close to being an older person.

  18. Meany, 21. October 2020, 9:26

    Call me cynical but was this Option not the Council’s intention all along? After all it showed this sketch drawing on its consultation documents, (instead of showing the present Athfield-designed library), ultimately made a unanimous decision before consulting the public that this was their preferred option, and then went on to ask leading questions in its tickbox submission survey. Talk about prejudging bias! This option is a highly complex option fraught with risk which present ratepayers whose rates paid for the civic centre may never use. Is that a fair use of our rates?

  19. Sky, 21. October 2020, 10:57

    Keeping the past is only worthwhile if the architecture is city identity defining, purposeful. Public libraries are a modern concept (the first was 1833), developed with the objective of learning, in order to improve one’s life. Its core purpose was not to be a warehouse for books, or an atrium for staircases…even though many libraries do have them.
    But the book part as the mechanism for learning is is slowly losing currency:
    – Younger readers more and more read online,
    – young professionals read almost exclusively online,
    – older people still read books to a much higher degree, but will only be around 30-40 years more.
    So we’re talking about at the very least 1m/year for a decreasing audience for a decreasing aproach to learning. And that’s before the reality of a) all WCC projects go over budget, b) seem to be unable to last the distance without further cash injections.

    I’m all for the humour of palm trees, even if the building doesn’t have much else going for it architecturally (post-modernism is the most reviled of all the architectural movements of the past century and a half. Even after brutalism). Nor in any style was it designed well in the first place. If it were, we wouldn’t be discussing its site placement and opening the sides of the building or strengthening it — absolute key concepts of architecture which the building — whomever it was designed by — failed at delivering.

    Injecting 1+m/year to only repair its long standing failings in the current economic climate is a too steep a cost on Wellingtonians. Preserving the past for the sake of preserving the past is not the objective. Even if that’s all the raw material available. Developing a future that is is functionally capable of being useful long enough that it is considered old in the future, is worth it. What we should be getting for our rates is a city centre building that is designed to evolve to needs, starting with books, evolving to digital, with use for other approaches to learning — the key purpose of a library — by a complete range of users, young to old. So concerts & theatre at night to children arts & crafts centre by day, science studies by school students, robotics by university students, etc.

    So before we discuss demolishing/replacing, we should get our objectives right. Otherwise, the money is a waste both ways. Nice staircase though.