There was some wonderful wooden news about Wellington last night, with the announcement of a new timber tower for the CBD. It’s a new building being developed for Robert Jones Holdings, which in itself is unusual as Sir Robert Jones normally just likes to buy and hold, but here his company has decided to redevelop the existing site.
The new building has been designed according to the development principles that remain crystal clear to Sir Robert: only ever buy corner sites, especially corner sites that face north. Make sure that there is no column in that northernmost street corner, as that’s the most prime office space. Always make sure there is a balcony so you can sit outside and have a smoke on your pipe, in the sunshine, with a glass of port, and watch the world drive by your doorstep. Make sure there are enough lifts so that the people in the building are kept happy and don’t spend time waiting for a lift. Good open-plan office space that can be simply and easily divided up into perimeter offices (as Bob Jones doesn’t like working in open plan space) and high levels of quality so that the space is always Grade A leasable for good returns. Robert Jones Holdings website is full of buildings that they own (they are the biggest property holders in Wellington) all of which seem to meet those principles, in Wellington, Auckland, Sydney and now also Scotland.
But of course the really exciting new thing about this building is that it is designed out of timber. Big timber. Engineered timber. Large logs of lumber, carefully sliced apart and put back together in a much stronger manner, so we will have LVL columns and beams and CLT for the floor slabs. And it plans to be tall – very tall. The world’s tallest timber office building it seems – bit only just, and only now, as there are others that are almost as tall in other cities around the world and others that are planned to be taller. But this is a record worth striving for – it really does aim to put Wellington right at the forefront of clever solutions in wood. That in itself is a great aim – Tina Morrison writes an excellent article in this week’s Listener magazine: “Raw Deal”, where she notes the current lamentable situation NZ finds itself: awash with wood, most of which goes offshore to supply logs to China and of which NZ Inc gets extremely poor returns. This building aims to reverse the trend and will ensure that at least 1500 logs stay in this country and are turned into a new laminated timber building.

The development itself does feature architects and engineers as well, despite Sir Robert’s claims to be the building designer, and luckily they are the best that NZ can find locally: Dunning Thornton Consulting Engineers with the “Bon Jovi” rock star of the engineering world: Alistar Cattanach; as well as Studio Pacific Architecture with their own rock star Marc Woodbury as lead architect, and no doubt a team of other players in the band. I’m not sure whether the building has got Resource Consent yet, but no doubt it will fly through, as who can resist a world-class exciting new building made from timber? Working with Bob Jones is an experience, so I hear, and these guys are in for a ride. Buckle in!
The project itself really is intriguing. The existing building is a dog – yes, it is on a corner, and yes, it faces north, but it really is a sad case and exemplifies everything that Bob hates about badly designed buildings. He has often made himself clear that architects should be put to death for their mistakes, probably by the most painful method possible. The current “Leaders Building” has an architectural pedigree of looking like a Modernist marvel, carefully modulated on the street corner, with a nice little set-back roof deck but in doing that it has screwed with the all important corner offices, and ruined the view out. It also has the most cocked-up street entrance ever, with some bad planning of amazing proportions, so much so that RJH filled up the former corner entry with a coffee shop. I remember going past this building years ago, pre-coffeeshop, and wondering how the architect could have got it so wrong. So, at last, this wrong is going to be made right.
I haven’t seen the plans yet, but no doubt there will be a much better lifting provision in the building, and there is a broad balcony at about level 2, presumably both to show off the timber construction, and also as somewhere for those who like to sit in the sunshine, smoke their pipe, and have a glass of red wine before lunchtime. What is exciting the engineers here is that in demolishing the existing monstrosity, they will leave the existing foundations in place and bolt the new lightweight building structure directly to that. Timber buildings are so much lighter than concrete or steel buildings, and when designed well, will perform much better in an earthquake. This building is not only tall, but skinny, with excellent floor to ceiling glass for views out and sunlight in, so it will be bolted firmly down to the existing piles and to help it ride out any quakes, the rooftop will feature a tuned-mass-damper water tank hidden behind the fins at the top. If you’re alert, you will note that the ground floor entrance has been removed away from the corner and given a much nicer entry of its own, leaving some lovely quality space for retail at ground and maybe first – and at every corner office we see the timber structure proudly exposed for the world to see.