Wellington Scoop

Keeping, not demolishing, the Civic Square buildings

cab and mob

by Ben Schrader
When I attended the recent Civic Trust seminar about the future of Te Ngākau Civic Square, the thing that surprised me the most was hearing the renowned architect Gordon Moller call for the retention and adaptive reuse of the Municipal Office Building (MOB) and Civic Administration Building (CAB) rather than have them demolished – as seems likely.

The reason I was so surprised is that New Zealand architects have more often promoted the rebuilding of cities rather than their preservation – think former mayor Michael Fowler.

Did Moller’s view signal a sea change within the profession, I wondered. That the profession now awards prizes for the restoration or adaptive re-use of old buildings suggests it is.

Another factor driving change is the growing realisation that the key to reducing carbon emissions in the building industry is to repurpose old buildings, rather than constructing new ones.

International research shows that the building industry produces nearly 40 percent of all greenhouse gases. Most new buildings erected in the present are built for a 50-year lifespan, meaning they will not survive long enough to repay the amount they cost in carbon to construct. Conversely, preserving older buildings contributes to climate change solutions by storing energy (or embodied energy).

As the American architect and sustainability expert Carl Elefante famously put it: ‘We cannot build our way to sustainability; we must conserve our way to it’.

New Zealand architects are increasingly recognising this and some practices like Jasmax are beginning to specialise in the adaptive re-use of old buildings – here is an interesting interview on the issue.

In light of this, every consideration should be given to Moller’s call to retain the Municipal Office Building and the Civic Administration Building.

Ben Schrader is a Wellington historian specialising in urban and built environment history. His books include: We Call it Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand (Auckland, 2005) and the award winning The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840-1920 (Wellington, 2016).


  1. K, 28. May 2021, 10:38

    If we are arguing for what’s best from a sustainability focus, then it would be much better to simply knock them down and leave a public park versus spending years doing extensive strengthening and renovation. Also bearing in mind the highly strained finances of the WCC, it would both sustainable from an environmental AND fiscal perspective.

  2. Claire, 28. May 2021, 10:49

    Ben: any thoughts on the cost of strengthening the two buildings? But I guess that can be offset against the emissions. Then also time to look at building materials regards emissions. And where old buildings go to die ie landfill that would be a bit toxic. I think people doing up old houses in the character areas have been saving on emissions for years.

  3. Hel, 28. May 2021, 13:54

    At what point does cost become important. The sums put out in the consultation were eye watering and we all know these costs only go up not down. The world and in fact Wellington have moved to re-using demolished building materials and there is a massive pile of repurposed concrete down by the ferry terminals. Just my opinion but the heritage merits of the old office building were lost years ago and the newer building has few redeeming features that justify a preserve at all costs approach.

  4. Helene Ritchie, 28. May 2021, 14:53

    Hey Hel, I am not sure you have looked at the sums for the proposed demolition and sale of the land under the MOB. They show that the Council anticipates virtually giving away (long term lease) our valuable land in the Civic Centre for $7million (to a favoured developer who will then make millions by using this public land.) Further the Council will continue to pay, for the next fifty years or more (forever?) leases all over Wellington for staff to be accommodated in expensive offices which the public will never be able to find. Or, if the Council staff are to come back to and reclaim the civic dimension of our civic centre, then they’ll have to pay rent to the developer.

    Councillors need to properly examine this. They have failed to do so. And that’s only one aspect of this important issue that Ben Schrader has highlighted in his article.

  5. K, 28. May 2021, 20:06

    Well it’s a more nuanced argument over cost of council leases than it first appears. It’s a choice between paying leases on office space (which they are currently doing) and by doing so not having to cover or be responsible for any of the large uncertain ongoing costs of the building space they are leasing (insurance, routine maintenance, any future strengthening/rebuild cost). Alternatively if the council wants to build and own its own office space, then it has to not only cover the ongoing costs of that (insurance, maintenance, future EQ/building risk), it ALSO has to pay the interest on the debt that is used to build the offices (which over the long term is not that much less than what it currently pays in lease costs). Leasing also provides flexibility for the council workforce – with any increase or reduction in staff, numbers can be easily managed by increasing or decreasing the amount of space needed to be leased (it’s a lot harder to increase/decrease the size of a council-owned building – instead it would be needing to lease additional space, or in the case of a decrease having part of the building sitting empty).

    Now I’m not saying what way the council should go, but I think it needs to be looked at from both sides of the debate, and the very real downsides of the council rebuilding/extensively renovating their own office space.

  6. 04 a Cynic, 30. May 2021, 14:45

    As a professional working on strengthening buildings deemed to be earthquake prone – it is important to first note that without exception most buildings were assessed using a flawed tool by inexperienced personnel. When querying these, we are told “it was the best tool available”. Recent reports on the probable strength of these buildings are contested vigorously, suggesting that the demolish-and-rebuild philosophy is alive and getting stronger. The flawed method means that the durability of older buildings is often underestimated. Seldom are buildings of the vintage of the MOB and CAB more costly to strengthen than it would be to demolish and rebuild.
    Demolition costs have soared beyond expectation due to most landfills not being able [or willing] to accept such materials. This usually results in larger than expected transport costs for the demolished materials to be taken to a landfill willing to accept such. Reuse of parts of the building materials is being encouraged but does meet the obstacle of Building Codes which only address new builds using new materials.
    In some instances in discussion with clients owning such buildings, we have experienced these over-inflated costs for demolition and have instead had to resort to looking outside the box to see what methodologies may be available to improve the building’s capacity. We have seen that Base Isolation is encouraged, we know that there are Viscous Dampers available for retrofits, we also know that there are friction dampers available for retro fit use. All of these options are available and have been for more than 10 years, yet we are being told “too expensive” to strengthen.
    I believe it is important that proper cost – benefit analysis be undertaken including all of the costs [including loss of revenue and/or alternative accommodation] of both. Emotions on options are, and will always be a factor, but in economically restrained times we need to be better informed and advised as to the most suitable option to be promoted. This I suggest is not always the case.

  7. Concerned Wellingtonian, 30. May 2021, 15:38

    The landfill problem should be no problem for Wellington. Indeed it should present a good source of future revenue if councillors put their minds to it. [There is a problem – the southern landfill will be full in less than four years’ time.]

  8. Helene Ritchie, 30. May 2021, 18:02

    O4 a cynic: Thanks you for your contribution. It is contributions like yours that the Council urgently needs, and more. There are engineers and architects who could make a very valuable contribution to the Capital and the Civic Centre heritage precinct, if only the Council would listen and make available all information to councillors and the public. Any of them are welcome to contact me as well. In the meantime the Council is going down a path of neglect and privatisation of part of the Civic Centre. It will become a symbol of the ineptitude of this Council.