Saving our heritage.

New Zealanders wanting to preserve heritage buildings face special challenges, especially compared to the conservation of buildings in Europe.

As more building owners look to preserve and upgrade the nation’s unique and historic buildings, Babbage Consultants is fielding a growing number of inquiries about the issues involved.

Babbage senior architect Wilson Pickering says one of the biggest issues in New Zealand is seismic activity, which requires special strengthening and other obligations.

Wilson has recently returned from touring Europe spending time looking at building conservation projects and historical buildings which have been adapted for new modern day uses. Many of the older buildings there – most of them centuries old – faced issues with decay, deterioration of the building’s fabric, neglect, subsidence, cracking and moisture.

“In New Zealand those issues are compounded by seismic factors and sometimes related settlement issues,” he said.

“Also, different building techniques may have been used here. We are often having to use different materials in repairing these buildings which presents special challenges.”

The law

In New Zealand the Resource Management Act 1991 provides the law and policy relating to the sustainable management of historic structures. It contains the planning and heritage requirements and outlines the building owners’ obligations and responsibilities. 

These obligations may determine if a building is to be restored, preserved as it is, or able to be adapted to meet modern needs. 

The cost

Restoring a building to, or near, its original state is one thing, but adapting it to new uses is another.

“Adaptive reuse” can be the perfect way to breathe new life into an old building while maintaining the heritage value. This approach can be a more economical way to achieve architectural elements such as sculpted stone, elaborate masonry, vaulted ceilings and carved timber that can be prohibitively expensive to recreate today.

One of the most important considerations for adaptive reuse is the economic constraints of the project. This influences which features can be reused.

“It’s always a challenge to strike a careful balance between preserving historical aspects of the building and adapting them for contemporary use,” Wilson said.

“This is where the architect’s knowledge and experience in cost-effective heritage solutions is vital.” 

Is it possible?

Another key consideration early in the design process is to have a structural assessment carried out to ensure the intended use of the structure is possible.

Changes may also be needed to the heritage building because of new statutory building requirements, such as the need for strengthening work or health and safety, accessibility issues.

Seismic issues

New Zealanders do not need reminding about the threat earthquakes pose to our buildings, and this is especially important when it comes to heritage buildings.

Under the Building Act 2004, a building is earthquake-prone if it fails to meet 34 per cent of the New Building Standard (NBS). Councils or other territorial authorities can require strengthening within set time periods and set the percentage of the NBS the building must reach.

Councils will usually make a special effort to meet heritage objectives and may issue dispensations or waivers where the issues are more technical than significant.

“But the laws are there for a purpose and building owners need specialist advice on what’s required, what’s practical and what it will cost,” Wilson said.

“That is what we are here for.”


For more information on the conservation of buildings or adapting them for other uses, please contact Wilson Pickering. 

09 379 9980

This is the first of a series of articles on preserving and restoring our heritage buildings

Saving Our Heritage