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AE Kitchen building, Whanganui

When Kerry Girdwood began to painstakingly restore a jewel in Whanganui’s crown, she knew it needed significant seismic strengthening. After engineers carried out a detailed seismic assessment (DSA), Kerry decided to repair the structural problems using her own funds.

The final stage of the project was to strengthen the ornate façade. When scaffolding went up outside, Kerry got an unpleasant surprise. On closer inspection, the façade was more fragile than the DSA had revealed. Much more work was needed to bring it up to code – the budget for the façade had to be tripled.

Funding from Heritage EQUIP helped her complete the job.

Retail and residence from the beginning

Photo of the AE Kitchen building’s ornate façade.
Photo courtesy of the Whanganui District Council Heritage Inventory. Register Item no: 395.

The A E Kitchen building is a commercial building on Whanganui’s main street. Its Edwardian Baroque style makes it a feature of the city’s streetscape. Above the pharmacy was the Kitchen family’s home, which Kerry has restored to live in. Two shops now occupy the ground floor.

Designs for strengthening solutions

EQSTRUC completed a seismic assessment of the building for the previous owner in 2014, and drew up designs for a strengthening solution. Their DSA found the building earthquake prone with strengthening needed for the perimeter masonry walls and parapets, for the connections between the roof and walls, and for parts of the façade.

Kerry kept EQSTRUC on the project but asked them to go back to the drawing board. ‘The original design was intrusive and did not factor in the resilience of native timber floors,’ she says.

While the seismic strengthening upstairs is unobtrusive, Kerry has left the steel supporting columns visible in the shops downstairs. ‘I want people to know the building has been strengthened,’ she says.

Heritage EQUIP funded further strengthening of the façade

The street-facing parapet and façade are particularly important to the heritage qualities of the building. They are the most decorative features and also the most visible.

Kerry says that one of the first floor pillars was noticeably leaning out. ‘It was probably loosened in the Kaikoura quake. The engineers put emergency strapping in immediately, then began permanent strengthening work.’

Kerry received Heritage EQUIP funding towards the extra cost. The grant was used to:

  • tie the decorative façade columns to the façade
  • tie the balustrade to the façade
  • restrain the side parapet to the roof and tie it to the front parapet.

Whanganui’s oldest pharmacy was a landmark from the beginning

The Whanganui Regional Heritage Trust Board has described 15A Victoria Avenue as, ‘the most important frontage of all buildings in our central city’. It is ‘in original condition, ornate, and beautiful,’ the board said.

When the pharmacy was built, the city was in the height of a building boom. The Wanganui Chronicle reported on 2 February 1909 that ‘During the last few days a large number of handsome business premises have been erected. Prominent among them is Mr A E Kitchen’s Pharmacy.’ No other building was mentioned – Kitchen’s was clearly already a local landmark. 

The building is two storeys high – about 11 metres – and built from unreinforced brick masonry. The ground floor walls are three layers thick, and the upper floor walls two layers.

The Kitchen building was designed by architect T H James and built by Nicolas Meuli, both considered to be among the leading practitioners of their day.

Whanganui District Heritage Inventory listing - Whanganui District Council website

Many challenges to overcome

Kerry faced several big challenges during the strengthening and restoration project. Originally expected to take 4–6 months, it took just over a year. 

Work on the seismic strengthening was delayed by several weeks. The consequences were expensive and frustrating. Much of the building work depended on the strengthening work, so the project nearly ground to a halt.

Kerry found the consent process for the seismic work straightforward. Getting consent for the restoration work was much more challenging. When Kerry moved in, she was still working on compliance issues. If councils want to retain heritage buildings, she says, they must manage compliance without making it too difficult for owners.

Kerry found managing relationships between members of the project team to be difficult and costly. The first architect walked off the job. But her relationship with the second was comfortable.

The project exceeded its budget overall. Kerry upgraded the specifications for the interior work and delays were expensive.

But she doesn’t regret doing the very best by the building.

Applying for a Heritage EQUIP grant was simple

When Kerry found out the extra cost of bringing the façade up to code, the district council’s town planner told her about the Heritage EQUIP fund. Delighted, Kerry applied, and visited the team at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in Wellington.

‘They were very good, very helpful and supportive. I was impressed.’ She says that after months of handling complicated paperwork, she appreciated a simple process and the clear application form and guidelines.

Top tips from a trailblazer

Kerry says she’s a trailblazer – one of the first private owners to seismically strengthen a heritage building under the new Building Act. She has learned a lot. ‘Come and talk to me. I could save you money!’ Here are her top tips:

  • Be an information junkie – with more information you can make better decisions.
  • Find out as much as possible about what the original building was like. Find out about alterations. As much as you can, avoid the ‘let’s take this wall out and see’ approach.
  • Get a view from above. To avoid the cost of scaffolding, use a drone or a cherry picker to get aerial views.
  • Take detailed photos at every stage to track the project. You may have to use them for insurance matters or disputes. And you have a very satisfying record of your hard work.

Inspiring other people who own historic buildings

The Whanganui District Council says the project is exactly what it envisaged in its Town Centre Regeneration Strategy. And the Whanganui Regional Heritage Trust Board says they want the project to inspire more building owners to invest in seismic strengthening.

‘Through projects like this, the trust hopes that Whanganui will gain a reputation as New Zealand’s best preserved heritage town,’ the trust said in its letter supporting Kerry’s application to Heritage EQUIP.