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Milton Street Substation, Christchurch

When Clark Mauger went to view the earthquake-prone Milton Street substation in Sydenham, he immediately knew he wanted to restore the building to its former glory.

Industrial beginnings

The Milton Street substation in Sydenham was built in 1928 by the Municipal Electricity Department (MED) and designed by the company’s own draughtsmen. The decorative style of the substation was probably chosen in order to please local residents, who complained that such buildings were ‘disfiguring the city’.

Nowadays, it is the largest remaining example of the ornamental, classically-influenced substations built in Christchurch during the art deco period, and is listed as a significant heritage site in the city’s district plan.

The substation is also a reminder of the importance the introduction of reticulated electricity had in New Zealand: offering people a clean, efficient and economical energy source for their households and commercial activities.

Christchurch was fortunate in this respect. It was the first city in the country to benefit from the construction of a major state hydro-electricity scheme, at Lake Coleridge, which began supplying power to the city in 1915.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the substation became obsolete and was replaced. Eventually it was repurposed as a commercial building and was occupied by a joinery business for a number of years.

For sale: a local landmark

When the Canterbury Earthquakes struck in 2010 and 2011, the former substation suffered some damage: although the damage to the main structure was only minor, the side parapets collapsed and a rear extension suffered significant damage.

Following a detailed engineering evaluation, the building was deemed earthquake-prone and unsafe to occupy. Despite this, the building retained many of its original features, including character windows, a torch lamp motif on the façade and high-stud timber ceilings.

In 2017, the building was put up for sale. Clark Mauger went to view it – and immediately put in an offer:

“I saw the listing pop up on Trade Me, called the agent straight away and made sure I was the first person through it. After the viewing, I was driving home and thought ‘opportunities like this don't come along every day.’ So I did a U-turn, called the agent and said ‘I’m on my way to your office to put an offer in.’”

“My offer was accepted and the journey began. And a long journey it has become!”

“A few weeks later, I was looking through some old goal setting sheets I had done years earlier. Incredibly, on one of them it said ‘own an MED substation’. I had completely forgotten about that goal – but it must have been sitting in my subconscious all that time. It was just meant to be, I think,” says Clark.

Developing a seismic solution

After purchasing the property, he began the process of obtaining detailed architectural designs, including plans for earthquake strengthening, and obtaining resource consent.

Clark, along with his heritage architect and engineer, met with the Council’s heritage staff several times prior to lodging resource consent, in order to achieve the best possible heritage outcome for the building.

“The heritage team at the Council were very supportive and helpful throughout the planning phase, but I felt that other departments often didn’t share the same enthusiasm or see the bigger picture,” says Clark.

“We have certainly had some hurdles to overcome along the way. We got there in the end, but it was a long, expensive process.”

Nevertheless, in February 2018, resource consent was approved and building consent was then lodged soon after.

As at October 2018, building consent has been granted and the foundation upgrades to the building have begun. The project is estimated to be completed within ten months, although Clark hopes it will be finished before then.

To ensure the building’s viability as a commercial property in the future, the main structure will be strengthened to 67% of the New Building Standard (NBS). Extra building strength is being gained primarily through new foundations, with extensive steel reinforcing and internal steel bracing.

In addition, the rear extension will be rebuilt to 100% NBS as required by the building code, since it is classed as a new structure.

Seismic strengthening addressed:          

  • installing a new perimeter ring foundation with extra reinforcing
  • installing internal steel bracing between columns
  • installing roof bracing
  • demolishing and rebuilding the rear brick extension
  • reconstructing side parapets with new lightweight materials

A first-time developer

As a first-time commercial property investor and developer, Clark admits he was probably a little optimistic at the beginning of the restoration project: “I hoped to find the perfect tenant early on, so I could develop and get consents to suit their needs.”

“But because of the uncertainty of timeframes, and because I was a first-time developer, it didn't happen. I’ve had to ‘bite the bullet’ and continue to renovate and strengthen the building so it’s ready to occupy, which is underway now.”  

“The grant from Heritage EQUIP certainly helped me make the decision to push on and not just sell the building as-is and earthquake prone. I wouldn’t have felt like I had achieved what I wanted, which is to fix the building, and see it used again,” says Clark.

Clark says “I love it when people see the substation for the first time and are amazed – it’s such a cool space.”

“It is a commercial investment, but honestly it’s probably a terrible one! It’s definitely a passion project. I want to be able to drive past in the future and say ‘I saved that building.’”

Maintaining the heritage of a public utility building

The local heritage team at the Council has supported the seismic upgrade and restoration of the substation which, it says, is “an earthquake survivor and landmark in the inner city suburb of Sydenham.”

 “It also represents one of a dwindling number of significant heritage buildings in Christchurch post-earthquakes.”

The team says Clark’s plans “minimise the impact of changes to meet building code requirements to secure the building’s ongoing commercial use, while protecting its heritage values and significance.”

“We commend the owner’s commitment to the building and efforts to bring it back into use following earthquake damage.”

To ensure the substation’s heritage is preserved, the upgrade works will have minimal impact on the building’s heritage fabric. For example, when installing the steel bracing, braces will simply be placed up against the internal brick walls, and painted in an inconspicuous colour.

In addition, the exterior of the substation will remain virtually untouched, and will fully retain its heritage values.

Tips for other building owners

Clark’s advice for other building owners about to embark on an earthquake-strengthening project:

  • It’s a complicated process - be prepared for many hoops!
  • Don’t underestimate how long things take – the project is likely to take longer thank you expect.
  • Employ heritage professionals. Our use of William Fulton, a heritage architect, made the process much easier.

Sydenham’s urban renewal

Since the Canterbury Earthquakes, Sydenham has become a busy business and retail area. There are new retail shops, eateries and new medium density residential housing along Colombo Street, all within a short walking distance of the substation.

With the property next to the substation due to be developed into housing and a park, what was predominantly an industrial area will soon be home to more residents. Clark hopes to make the most of this transformation.

“I’m working closely with the company who is developing that property. We see a lot of cohesion between our developments, so I’m excited to create something that will complement and contribute significantly to the area.”

“I’m really looking forward to seeing it tenanted and being used by the community,” he says.