The Law of Attraction

Words by Irena Brooks
Roger Richardson Roger Richardson

The striking transformation of the building on the corner of King and Dawson Streets sees a dynamic new home for the city’s oldest law firm.

The year may be 2020, but future needs, rather than hindsight, shaped the vision that brought forth a new home for the 150 year-old law firm, Govett Quilliam.

With a lease renewal impending for their former seaside location, “we were at a point where we were considering what the future of GQ looked like,” says chief executive officer, Sophie Braggins, who has been in the role less than two years.

“We did some due diligence on what we’d be able to achieve at the 1 Dawson St building, but it would have required some significant re-working for us to achieve the team all on one floor within a collaborative environment, so we swiftly moved on to other opportunities.”

Developer, Pete Snowden reflects on how he and a consortium of other local people clubbed together to give new life to what was once the Taranaki Mail Centre.

“The location was great but the existing building was restrictive because it was purpose designed and built for New Zealand Post quite a few years ago as a distribution centre.

“So the challenge was around how do we try and utilise some of the existing materials and building structure but also come up with a building that’s really quite unique and with a totally different purpose.”

With the success of the West End Precinct, Snowden and his associates could see the potential for extending the concept into the next city block.

“That part of town has developed into more of a cafe offering and office location. We went to several architects for advice and we came up with a few ideas ourselves. After a trip to the UK I was convinced it needed to be an industrial sort of gas works, power plant sort of looking building, because that, in my view, is Taranaki. We’re an energy centre and we come from engineering and that sort of culture. So to build a flash glass and silver building was not what we thought was needed.”

The Design

With a budget of $10 million they decided on MATZ Architects for the project. Though based in Auckland, they have several Taranaki connections, with architect Mark Jolly’s in-laws in the region. MATZ has also built past projects here, including the interior of the striking AON Building on Young St, which won an architectural award.

Mark was the architect for the King & Dawson development project, which quickly started being referred to as the GQ Building, after principal tenant, Govett Quilliam.

Mark had spent a lot of time in Melbourne, and was familiar with how many buildings there utilised brick, glass and steel, which is exactly what was wanted for the New Plymouth project.

“And I liked his manner in the way that he was approaching the design,” says Pete.

A scale model was developed by MATZ and presented to proposed anchor tenant, Govett Quilliam.

“We weren’t the only ones Govett Quilliam were talking to, so we had to come up with a high impact building, at the right price and the right location, which are the three ingredients you need in securing a project. 

“We tried to utilise as much of the existing building as we could, so the structural steel frame, existing concrete floor, and some of the purlins. A new concrete floor had to be poured on top of the old concrete floor as it was a bit lumpy and at the wrong level.

“Essentially Building One is the existing building and Building Two is brand new.”

“It was a conscious decision to contrast the old building with the new building,” explains Mark Jolly, “then take elements from the old and use them in the new. So the height of the two buildings relate to each other, the pitch of the roofs match each other but tilt in different directions, and the use of louvres on both buildings, which tie in but also contrast with the use of colour — black on the old building and white on the new.”

The louvres also have a practical aspect, preventing glare and overheating, as well as providing privacy, obscuring the view from outside, and helping focus the view from inside not on the car park below, but up and beyond.

The brick exterior, though it looks like authentic recycled material, is actually new brick, designed to look old.

“We wanted to use old bricks but couldn’t get enough that were regular in colour and shape,” says Pete. “We ended up buying them in from Melbourne.

“It’s a new concept for New Plymouth with the brick, glass and black. In fact you don’t see too many buildings like this in New Zealand — it is quite a ballsy step to use brick.”

“We liked the feel of the brick, contrasting with the dark metal, but keeping the silhouette of the existing building, giving it some soul and harking back to the history of the site,” adds Mark.

“Two large canopies cantilever out over King St, which penetrate into the building and bring a lot of natural light into the upper level space. They help define the entry by projecting out over the street and break up that large, flat facade of the former warehouse that sat on the street in a fairly brutal way. Having those canopies, combined with the smaller canopies that cantilever over the windows at the lower level, creates a much more inviting presence. We wanted to move on from a warehouse that did not give back to the city, to bring the scale down, which the brick also helps to do.”

A Living Environment

With Govett Quilliam on board as the upstairs tenant, the building was taken to market with the ground floor. 

“Within a short period of time we managed to secure up the whole of the ground floor,” says Pete. “We’ve had a lot of interest, and even now that we are finished, as recently as this week (mid-Nov) I’ve had people ringing and asking if there are any tenancies available. We’re sort of in the situation where we’d like to do another one actually.

“It’s hard to find 100% earthquake modern premises with good heating and ventilation.”

The ground floor tenants are Venture Taranaki, CMK Accountants, Alpha Customs (from 27th January) and international company Emersons.

“We’ve done well to establish their head office here in New Plymouth. They were tossing up between Wellington and New Plymouth and I think because of the building, and they liked New Plymouth, they decided to come here.”

The atrium, which houses the central entrances to the building, features highly polished concrete floors under a vaulted ceiling encompassing both floors. Natural light pours in from skylights above and windows at either end. It is envisaged artworks will be hung here, a bit like a mini-gallery, with changing exhibitions.

“The whole building we want to have it as like a ‘living environment’,” Pete explains. 

“Looking at building concepts overseas, this definitely seems to be the way to go, where less is more … not putting in suspended ceilings and closing places down, just leaving it in its natural state.

“The building’s extremely well-insulated too — it’s double-glazed, with a well-insulated roof. Precast concrete is great as thermally it works brilliantly, absorbing heat through the day and releasing it at night. The heating costs should be quite low because of the insulation values.”

The whole project has been quite quick, with a total timeline of 18 months — about 6 months in the design stage and then 12 months construction.

“Clelands have done a great job. They were involved with some of the design in the latter stages,  looking at ways to refine the speed and ease of construction, which ultimately saves on costs. It’s been great having them help us proactively with that. And John on site’s been extremely good — it’s been a big job for him — and he’s lived and breathed the project and has really set a very good culture on site.”

There were a few hiccups at the start because there is actually a river that runs underneath the building, so the size of the foundations had to make allowance for this so construction would not interfere with the river. 

“That was a well thought out engineered solution, which came from Sally Reid from Nagels. Once we got through that stage, it was pretty straightforward really.

“Getting out of the ground is often a difficult process with a new building … what you can’t see is the stuff that usually bites you.

“We’ve tried to use as many local guys as we can … there was a comment recently, something about the hospital and someone said we don’t have the expertise locally to build something of that size. I think that’s absolute rubbish. The people that have been involved in this project, and others we’ve done in Taranaki, certainly have the skills and ability to build pretty much anything … the hospital project would not have scared local contractors,” Pete maintains.

A “pop-up” coffee shop will be installed in a converted shipping container on the sheltered eastern side of the building. This will be open to the public as well as tenants of the building.

“We want to try and get this business community feel about the project and we spoke to the council about how we can create that whole extension between King St, Queen St, and Young St and get this whole walking flow and street connection, pedestrian-oriented business precinct philosophy going.”

Pete also loves how some Phil Jones street art has transformed the former white transformer box outside the building. “Sophie (Braggins) did a great job in getting this organised … it adds a bit of fun, colour and vibrancy.”

The site comes with 40 car parks, and in days gone by, you would have had to allow for 50 or 60 car parks, reckons Pete. “Now, there are a lot of people who cycle, walk, take electric scooters, so the whole lighter footprint on our environment is what people want.”

Cables for Electric Vehicle chargers have also been laid in the car park.

Open For Business

“The whole relocation experience has been incredible from a cultural perspective for us,” says Sophie. “The energy it generated in the team … the layout of the building, and particularly our floor, is brilliant. We’ve achieved exactly what we wanted to. It allows collaboration, it allows us to better utilise and access people across their specialisations, it allows us to host clients in a different way.

“We’re all on one floor plan so we’re more visible to each other, we have a large function space which will allow us to develop an exciting seminar schedule moving into 2020, which is the connection to community that we really craved.”

Govett Quilliam turned to local architects BOON for their office fit-out.

“BOON Architects provided an inspiring vision of what we could achieve through materials, acoustics and use of space,” says Sophie.

The office is open plan, but with various spaces subtly defined through screens, colours and textures or changing floor surfaces.

The reception area is the central point of the office, with carpeted open plan workspace areas screened off on either side, explains Murali Bhaskar who headed the Boon team. 

Rubber has been used for the floor of the main reception area so people’s footfalls are soft.

Several meeting cubicles feature here so that this is very much the “public” area of the space.

Each cubicle is closed off with glass so staff can easily see which ones are in use and a ‘glass pod’ has been provided for staff needing privacy and absolute quiet for phone or Skype calls.

“The glass also gives a sense of space,” adds Murali, “so when you’re in there you don’t feel claustrophobic.”

The boardroom can be completely closed off from the function/staff room with folding doors  (PIP7320), while acoustic tiles and plush carpet soften sound (PIP7395 or 7484). Or the two areas can be incorporated into one large meeting or function space.

“It’s about improving connectivity,” Murali explains. “In a traditional office, staff are shut away from each other and you can go weeks without seeing other people who work in the same company. Modern law needs have changed and this space is designed to reflect that.”

“Yes we’re a traditional law firm, but we’re much more than that,” Sophie says. “We’re now able to provide more of a holistic service to our clients in a much more welcoming and comfortable environment. It’s all of these things that create the experience we’re after — for our clients, the community and our team.

“We’re excited by the energy each of the tenants bring and we’re looking to create a culture within the building, whether that’s through art, or coffee, or evening functions, education, those are all the kinds of things we’ll be aiming to facilitate — as a building and as a collective of future-focussed businesses.

Though only technically two blocks closer to the CBD, Sophie adds they now feel a part of it.

“We’re now much more accessible to the community. People tend to pop in to see us more now, which is exactly what we hoped for.

“Sustainability, the environment and culture aren’t buzzwords to us, they’re actually really critical business strategies and this building is a foundation for us to be able to embrace new ways of doing business.”

“We’re really proud to have worked on this building,” sums up architect, Mark Jolly. “It’s an exciting project for us and we hope that we’ve been able to improve a small part of that area of New Plymouth and continue the good work that’s been done by other designers, landlords and architects in the area.”

Pete Snowden sees challenges for a number of other buildings in the city, which may have been cutting edge in their time, but will increasingly have challenges in how they’re going to house people. “Ground floor plus one is probably about it … the idea of building high structures is probably gone at the moment due to cost and people not wanting to be up in the air — Christchurch probably has a lot to do with that.”

The King and Dawson building is expected to be fully operational by the end of the year  — ahead of schedule — and a nice way for the tenants to kick off 2020.

“Our challenge now is to find other sites where we can do a similar concept — different designs but innovative buildings, there certainly is an appetite for them.”

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