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The Pumphouse, Christchurch

The Pumphouse buildings suffered in the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes. Rather than demolish the local landmark, owners Paddy and Jackie Snowdon are strengthening the heritage buildings where they operate their demolition business.

The buildings are not only functional, they’ve caught the eye of many artists. A well-known painting of the buildings by Doris Lusk is displayed in Auckland Art Gallery, and the rambling relic has served as a backdrop for several wedding photos. With support from Heritage EQUIP, the buildings will continue to feature in modern day life.

Christchurch’s most important utility building

Paddy and Jackie Snowdon purchased the Pumphouse at 544 Tuam Street in 1989. Parts of the building date back to the early 1880s when it was built as the city’s original sewage pumping station. It operated as a pumping station until 1957.

An article about the buildings was written in Historic Places at the time it was sold to the Snowdons. It was described as Christchurch’s ‘most important surviving early utility building’ and it was hoped that it would be put to some alternative use rather than be demolished.

The Snowdons did just that - ‘The Pumphouse’ has been the name of their demolition business for the past 28 years. ‘They are ideal buildings to house our demolition yard and fitting for our collection of architectural antiques,’ says Jackie.

The buildings were red-stickered after the 2011 earthquakes

The Pumphouse is made up of five attached buildings with deep foundations and thick, brick walls. The buildings’ robust construction saved them from destruction in the 2011 earthquakes, but they were rated as potentially dangerous to the public and red-stickered. Paddy and Jackie were forced to operate from temporary garages and shipping containers immediately after the earthquakes.

In 2014, after a few false starts, Paddy and Jackie found an engineering firm that ‘had the time and interest to work on strengthening plans for the buildings’. Engineers from CGW Consulting carried out a full investigation of the structure and found the strength of the complex of buildings to be 10% of the New Building Standard (NBS).

Planning the strengthening project

Paddy and Jackie thought it was worth spending money at the planning stage so they were able to make informed decisions. Engineers prepared plans to strengthen the buildings to 34% and 67% NBS and both plans were costed by a registered quantity surveyor.

“We decided we should strengthen to 67% NBS rather than 34% NBS to ensure that such historic buildings got maximum protection.”

The consent processes were straightforward for Paddy and Jackie. The Engineer worked through the building consent and advised the Snowdons to hire a consultant for the resource consent. The Council requested technical information so Paddy and Jackie quickly realised this was a job for the professionals.

Paddy and Jackie recognise the significant heritage value of the buildings

The Snowdon’s proposal for the strengthening work carefully considered the effect on the environment and the impact on the buildings’ heritage value. The site of the Pumphouse is a Category 2 historic place on the New Zealand Heritage List and scheduled on the Christchurch District Plan. Paddy and Jackie have been granted a resource consent that includes conditions to protect the heritage value of the building.

New Zealand Heritage List entry - Heritage New Zealand website

The Snowdons applied for Heritage EQUIP funding

Paddy and Jackie have been awarded $200,000 from Heritage EQUIP to contribute to the cost of:

  • installing of roof diaphragms
  • strengthening brickwork with steel rods
  • improving connections between the roof, walls and floor
  • installing brace framing

The Pumphouse buildings have high significance to Christchurch

The sewerage system of the Pumphouse was the ‘cornerstone of 19th century Christchurch’ that led to a significant improvement in residents’ quality of life.

The Christchurch Drainage Board was established in 1875-76 in response to the city-wide sewage and drainage problems. The unhygienic situation had dire consequences - water-borne diseases were a leading cause of the city’s high death rates.

Parliament at the time passed special legislation to come up with an engineering solution. The pumping station included an underground sewage tank and pumping engines to pump sewage along cast iron pipes out from the city centre.

Construction methods used for the pumping station are technologically significant. Engineers had to use innovation and skill to design a building that sits on sand and river sediment.

The Pumphouse buildings have architectural significance for their utilitarian design and technological craftsmanship. They are built from brick, with classical detailing using Oamaru stone.

“We are looking forward to getting our project underway.  We think our buildings are really cool and have such a great link to Christchurch’s history – even although pumping sewerage wasn’t exactly a glamorous role!” says Jackie.

Challenges of the project

Paddy and Jackie were under pressure to find the funding needed to start the project before their building consent expired in August 2017. The structural engineers were also challenged by the fact that the property contains five connected buildings. They had to come up with strengthening solutions for each building and consider how the buildings would interact in an earthquake.

Paddy and Jackie hope that the strengthening work won’t disturb their demolition business. The work will be carried out in stages to allow them to keep their business going while the work is being done.

Future plans for the Pumphouse

The Snowdons plan to continue their demolition business on the site and also see huge potential for the buildings in the future. “The buildings would lend themselves for use as a workshop, a café or restaurant, or funky offices.”