As far as cost blowouts go, this is a big one, and heads should roll. We here at the Fish have written about the old Town Hall a few times over the years, and last time we wrote we noted that “Since the town hall was closed in 2013 for strengthening, the cost of the project has gone from $43m, to $60m, to $90m. The final price is expected to be higher.” And in turn, later it was announced the cost of strengthening the hall had gone up for the fourth time, to at least $112m. And then again, to $147m. And now, today, a further possible doubling of this price, yet again, to an eye-wateringly large potential $329million. This is a runaway gravy train for someone, but not for the residents of this city. This is a train that has not just left the station without a driver, but is currently hurtling towards a precipice, while full of sticks of dynamite…

So, how did we get into such a pickle? And pickle is putting it pretty mildly, when the phrase “complete and utter clusterfuck” seems far more appropriate. Looking back, the original contract was signed during the Justin Lester years, and at the time, Mayor Justin Lester said $1.6m of the spend went on securing the building’s masonry, as legally required. And $4.8m had been spent for design work and consultants on an earlier iteration of the project that was cancelled in 2014. “Its normal for that amount of money to have been spent on designing and signing off on such an expensive project.” Mayor Lester went on to say:

“We want to make sure that Wellingtonians get a good outcome, they want a strengthened town hall in a building that’s going to be here another 50 to 100 years. That’s why its going to be base isolated. It is on reclaimed land, it’s a category 1 heritage building. It’s a complex project, that’s why you have to invest in the planning and design up front.”

Of course, none of us mere mortal humans (or fishes) have been privy to the legal and contractual documentation about this project, that apparently had so much “planning and design” invested up front. Part of that planning and design seems to have been a complete lack of realisation that the building had been built on land recently reclaimed from the sea – land that was in fact Foreshore and Seabed only a fews decades before. Build your biggest and best building on the beach – what could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything could wrong, it seems and now it has.

What do we know? A contract was signed back in 2019? with reputable contractor Naylor Love, which must have had some carefully worded clauses saying that the ground below the proposed new foundations was unknown, and that the Council must allow for potential cost increases there. The Architects, who I presume are still Athfield Architects, are unlikely to be the culprits here. The Engineers, who I presume are possibly Holmes Consulting, have been keeping a very low profile so far. The Contractors, Naylor Love, have been doing all the hard work so far, but I would love to have been a fish on the wall at the meeting when they broke the news of the extra potential $143million cost increases…

Actually, some of the blame can be put fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Client, namely the Council, the University, and the NZSO, as well as the Hobbit King himself, as together the lot of them agreed to ask the Contractor for a change in the Contract to provide a top o the line recording studio to be built into a new basement faciity below the Auditorium. To those of you familiar with the ins and outs of the ways of the Contractor, you will probably realise that asking a Contractor to add in a new Basement level below the level of the base isolators and thereby adding in basement level complexity on an already highly complex basement job, is going to cost a lot, and a wounded Contractor may well have just snapped and bitten the person asking… Let’s just say that I am not at all surprised there is significant extra cost there, although of course I didn’t expect the costs to double.

There have been some clues that the Contractor and the Client knew that there would be some significant extra costs coming. Engineering NZ ran a heritage week back in March (this year? or a previous year?) where a talk on the project was given by Greg McFettridge and Eoin Norton.

“This is a case study based on the Wellington Town Hall refurbishment, highlighting the complex engineering nature of the work and the extensive need for temporary works. It touches on the Heritage Fabric vs Structural requirements and the use of modelling to assist with building and heritage management and the need for intrusive survey to help manage risk.”

Of the most fascinating interest (to me, anyway) is a paper published back in 2019 at NZSEE, by L.A. Whitehurst, H.S. McKenzie & A.E. Philpott, all from Holmes Consulting, entitled “Seismic strengthening and uplift of the 1904 Wellington Town Hall”. In this paper, the authors note, even way back then, that:

“The site itself imposes many challenges as well. As discussed previously, the poor soils required extensive intervention to the foundation system. The site’s proximity to the Wellington Harbour mean a high water table as well as the consideration of aggressive soils and brackish water. In addition to the already high water table, seasonal inundation and global sea level rise were required to be considered in the design, bringing the design water table up to the top of the basement. During the construction phase, the constrained nature of the site, with buildings on three sides, will create many challenges for access into the building.”

In turn, the paper by Whitehurst et al refers to an even earlier paper which seems to be important, but won’t let me download it. Anyway, all of these sources note that the project is high risk, extremely tricky, very ambitious, and pushing the boundaries on what is possible. Perhaps we should not be too surprised that the cost has blown out so much…