Unreinforced Masonry Buildings

Update 28 Sept 2018: The below was written on 26 Sept 2018, but in the following two days, all of the buildings discussed below have been removed from the Wellington Council’s list of Unreinforced Masonry (URM) buildings except one – the Newtown Hotel building discussed below.

26 Sept 2018: A major deadline approaches in Wellington, and perhaps a show-down is to follow.  Following the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, the Council identified 113 Wellington buildings built of unreinforced masonry in areas of high pedestrian or vehicle traffic. The buildings’ owners were given a Government-imposed deadline to secure their facades and parapets. This is a process separate from the red-sticker/yellow-sticker Earthquake Prone Buildings process, which rumbles on and on and on separately (although of course in some cases for the same buildings).  Many of these owners knew prior to this that their buildings were possibly earthquake prone, but this was a very specific list with a shorter deadline to have their parapets and facades secured.  The deadline, which required owners to secure vulnerable parts of their buildings by March 2018, was extended by six months after owners said it was not feasible to fix in time.  So the deadline became between 15 and 27 September 2018.  Which is right now.

The Council have been working closely with these owners to ensure that they have the work completed by the new September deadline – but even so, 20 still remain on the list.

Of course, this project to secure the facades of unreinforced masonry buildings of Wellington does not mean that they will not fall down in an earthquake, but it does hopefully mean that they are less likely to have their facades fall off into the street after an earthquake.  This is of course because of the horrific death toll in Christchurch, many of which were caused by unsecured facades falling into busy city streets, and because of the concern that access in and out of the city will be blocked by the rubble of these buildings.

To assist with the urgency of the work, Wellington City Council has contributed $1 million and the Government $2 million to building owners, to ‘pin back’ and secure facades and possibly dangerous details. The fund contributes up to half of the costs of the actual work, up to a maximum of $25,000 for buildings two storeys and below, and up to $65,000 for buildings three storeys or over. Many of the buildings that were and are on the list are heritage listed buildings, but not all.

As I understand it, the Wellington City Council has been both understanding of the issues facing owners – but also taking it seriously.  The City Council has been updating the list every two weeks or so, and I have been watching the list slowly getting smaller as work has begun or completed (in one way or another…).

Deadline Approaches
At the start of the process there were 113 – then by the end of August there were 45 left; then on 6 September there were 36, and as of last week, 20 September, there are now only 20 left on the list.  The Council kindly provides a list and a map of unreinforced masonry buildings in Wellington on their website.

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 9.49.42 PM.png
A few of the buildings, marked in yellow, still on the list as of 20 Sept.

In these recent weeks buildings have been removed for a number of reasons.  The Wellington City Council has been focussing on telling us the good news stories, which I guess is fair enough.  For example, they discussed the story of the work completed on the Maguires Building, at 168-174 Cuba Street, which houses the Olive Café was bought in August 2017 by William Broadmore and his wife and they have quake-strengthened and restored the 1901 building over the past year, and it has therefore now come off the list.  This was one of a number of buildings which have changed hands since the deadline came into place.  I can imagine that it has been rather a frantic time for owners, trying to find engineers and architects to advise them.

Others of the original 113 have been demolished, some altered and strengthened.  Three buildings that were recently removed are the three buildings on the corner of Lambton Quay and Willis Street – the Stewart Dawson Corner.  This is ironically because… well… rather than being an unsecured façade they are now, just a façade and nothing else.

The remaining part of the Stewart Dawson Buildings

Another building that has been removed from the list is the rather lovely CO Products building in Adelaide Road, which has had pins inserted recently, as you can see in the image, into the façade.

CO Products building in Adelaide Road

Across the road are two others that has recently come off the list – the red-stickered brick Tramway Hotel built in 1899 in Adelaide Road which has been closed for quite some time, and its neighbouring building, which were both on the list until a few weeks ago, so the work that has been underway recently must have been considered sufficient to remove them.

The Tramway Hotel, right, and its neighbouring bulding which have recently been removed from the list.

Another important building that just recently came off the list is the city’s Town Hall, which of course is owned by the Council itself.  Major EQ strengthening and other work is planned for the building in the coming years, but as I understand it the council is having to do the parapet/façade work first, before all the rest of the work, in order to meet the government’s deadline – a major and complicated task which I imagine they would have preferred to have done at the same time as the major work.

The legislation allows councils to take a number of actions if the URM work isn’t completed before the notice expires. These actions include:

  • Closing the site: Councils may issue a warrant to remove the immediate danger and prevent access to the building’s street front until work is completed. The owner of the building is liable for the costs associated.
  • Prosecution: A person who fails to comply with a dangerous building notice commits an offence and is liable to a fine not exceeding $200,000.
  • Takeover: A council may choose to apply to District Court for an order to carry out the building work required under the notice. The owner of the building is liable for the costs of the work.

And Then There were Twenty…

A quick summary of the buildings that still remain on the list as the deadline has run out is below.  Of course, I am sure that some of these buildings are currently working on meeting the requirements of the government to secure their buildings.

The biggest worries are of course Cuba Street, Adelaide Road and Riddiford Street in Newtown as they have lots of people nearby, and are important access ways into and out of the city for emergency vehicles to the hospital and for the fire engines in Newtown.

In Lower Cuba Street there is 58 Cuba Street (which is a listed heritage building), known as the T.G. Macarthy Trust Building, which contains Cheapskates and its neighbouring 54 Cuba Street.  They share a party wall.  They have been looking run down for some time, but I understand work has been happening there.

Just around the corner at 67 Manners Street,the more modern looking building with the crepe shop and a 2degrees shop, the one with the rounded balcony.

Moving further up Cuba Street, another building is the rather lovely little commercial building on the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee Street, at the end of the mall, which has Student Travel shop in it.  Built for the Gear Meat Preserving and Freezing Company, it was designed by architect William Charles Chatfield. Despite its modern horrible little verandahs (how they got planning permission I will never know), as the council says ‘contributes considerable townscape value to Cuba and Ghuznee Streets’.

Further up again is 176 Cuba, another listed heritage building, known as the L T Watkins building, which contains Flying Burrito Brothers, and (horrors!) Midnight Espresso.  The idea of Wellington without Midnight Espresso is not worth thinking about.  This is a heritage listed building described by the Council as ‘a fine example of a large Edwardian warehouse/commercial building’.  The council also notes ‘the eclectic shop-front at Midnight Espresso is also notable for its contribution to the lively Cuba Street streetscape’. Just around the corner on Ghuznee Street is the beautiful Albermarle Hotel (below), another building without which the city would be much the poorer.

59 Ghuznee St_Albermarle-2
Albermarle Hotel

There are also three neighbouring buildings in Egmont Street, down one of the popular lanes off Dixon Street, across from the Egmont Street Eatery.  In another neighbouring land is 8 Holland Street; the council had planned to make this into a new laneway in the same way they had done for Eva and Egmont Streets.

There are also a number of examples further afield – a couple of small diaries, takeways and shops in Island Bay, Kilbirnie, and Miramar.

In Newtown, there is the old Newtown Hotel, which was built in 1902 and an operated as a hotel until Newtown went dry and banned alcohol in 1907.  It then became a picture theatre in 1916 and was known as ‘Our Theatre’, and then later the ‘Ascot Theatre’.  It was later used as a dance hall, nightclub and market. It has had a strange Art Deco façade attached to the front as some point, but the old building can still be clearly be seen behind.

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 9.24.19 PMScreen Shot 2018-09-26 at 9.23.49 PM
The Newtown Hotel Building, in 1904 and today.

Another building on the list is the old black and white Red Cross / Manor building on the corner of Ghuznee Street and Willis Street – which all Wellingtonians will know. 200 Willis Street
It was designed by William Turnbull and completed in 1908 as a residence and surgery for surgeon Sir Donald McGavin. The government’s Heritage Equip has recently provided the owners with a grant of almost $300,000 to comprehensively strengthen the building.


This photo was taken recently in Christchurch.  Given that the council can – now that the deadline has passed –  “prevent access to the buildings’ street front” is this the future for any of these buildings??  It would cause quite an impression in Cuba Mall!


Images: All Black and White modern images by Andy Spain; check out his beautiful work here.  Historical Newtown Hotel image 1904: Muir & Moodie (Firm). Riddiford Street, Newtown, Wellington. Ref: BB-2291-1/1-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, /records/23223500

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s