Photos by Joe Hockley

The restoration of the Buckland and Masonic Buildings is part of Britomart’s commitment to sustainable development, historic preservation and place-making for people. 

Behind the poster-lined hoardings on Customs St East, the renovation and restoration of two historic buildings – Buckland and Masonic – is well underway. These buildings are the eleventh and twelfth to be renovated as part of Britomart’s ongoing precinct-wide development plan. Originally designed as warehousing and storage, over the years the buildings have housed tea, coffee and spice importers, a publishing company, and the Masonic Club as well as fashion designers, a software company, lawyers and a marketing agency prior to the refurbishment beginning.


From the street, the buildings appear as one, thanks to their shared facade, but they were originally built more than a decade apart – the Masonic first, in 1885, and the Buckland Building sometime in the late 1890s. On a walk through the restoration project, Britomart development director Campbell Williamson gives us a vision of what the refurbished buildings were like in their glory days, how they’ve changed over the last century, and how they’ll be brought into the modern era when both reopen in mid-2020, alongside Auckland’s newest hotel.

We’re standing at ground level in the middle of the site where the Buckland and Masonic Buildings meet The Hotel Britomart. It’s very much a construction zone now. What’s it going to be like in a year? 

Campbell: At ground level, where you enter The Hotel Britomart and the Buckland and Masonic Buildings, it will have the feel of a Melbourne laneway, with lots of nooks and crannies and points of interest. It’s an environment where hotel guests and office workers and visitors to Britomart all mingle. The hotel guests will feel like they are very much in amongst and a part of the life of the city. 


There’s a laneway that cuts through from Customs St to Galway St, and on the Galway St side, it’s open to the sky during the day and the stars at night. There’s planted landscaping, with big pots and trailing plants, similar to the existing plantings throughout Britomart. Tables and chairs here and there. If you’re going to the hotel, you enter the lobby through expansive glass doors into a space of generous height filled with comfortable places to sit. 


Over on the Customs St side, the laneway goes under cover and winds through some carefully chosen retail and hospitality. There’s a centrepiece outdoor fireplace here, a spectacular bar, more tables and chairs and plants, and a high-production kitchen serving carefully curated food around the clock. There will be one or two retail outlets. And maybe a dessert store. As you pass under these gorgeous archways, you’ll immediately sense you’ve crossed a threshold from a public space into something that’s a little more private, for then taking the lift up into the office floors above.

How many people will work upstairs in these buildings?

The floor plates are not massive, so there will be maybe 30 people per floor over three floors. It’s been set up with flexibility built in, for the floors to be easily divided into different spaces for multiple companies

What are the key restored materials that people will see throughout these buildings?

First of all, there’s the beautiful brick that’s been stripped back and can be seen in all its rawness. You can see the 130 years of adaption and change and reuse that these buildings have gone through in the different types of bricks and the changes in the layering and patchwork of previous finishes across the walls. There are openings that have come and gone. And we’re simply adding another layer to those patterns.


Then there’s the timber. In these buildings, we have kauri floors, as well as kauri columns and beams, which is a bit unusual and is mainly seen in buildings built in the 1800s. Some of the other restored buildings in the precinct, like the Australis Nathan, built in 1903 and 04, are made out of Australian hardwoods – heavy eucalypts. That’s because the kauri had started to run out by then. What is also interesting is that kauri is a softer timber, and as we’ve peeled back the layers of these buildings, in some places we’ve had to chase the borer out of the heavy timbers.

Has the restoration process thrown up any other challenges?

For sure, as with any refurbishment, there are a few. At the top level, the Masonic Building has a beautiful pitched kauri ceiling. We’ve had to add in completely rebuilt gutters and plumbing because back in the day they had little understanding of the New Zealand weather and its tenacity for driving rain in. We’ve also added a lot of steel for the structural upgrade. These buildings were built by people from the United Kingdom who had experienced nothing like the earthquakes of New Zealand, so there wasn’t a lot of effort put into holding buildings down and in place in a shake – gravity just kind of held them together. We’ve added structural reinforcement into the floors, walls, roof and foundations. And there’s the general modernising and upgrading for the requirements of modern offices.

Have you changed the layout of the buildings themselves?

The Masonic Building was built first, and the Buckland Building was later built up against it, like a three-sided lean-to. The Masonic Building was originally built with solid brick partitions through it with only one crazy little door through each partition. It was almost like three buildings within a building.


We’ve put quite a few massive openings into those partitions and through the wall joining the Masonic and Buckland Buildings to create an open flow right across the floor plates at each level. Over time people will work out that as you move from the west side of each floor to the east side, the floor level changes slightly and the timber columns are slightly different and the bricks are slightly different, and they’ll realise that it’s actually two different buildings joined up as one.

What makes a refurbished interior feel nice to work in compared to something shiny and new?

Well, something that’s really gorgeous about these buildings is that you have all these beautiful brick short sections of walls (where we’ve opened the original walls up) throughout each floor that create nooks and crannies that desks can cluster around or a seating space can be backed up against. It’s not an acre of desks and chairs. It’s broken up into a mottle of uneven spaces. A new building plan wouldn’t dare have the optimisation of an open floor cluttered by a whole lot of brick columns. But they make the spaces  incredibly interesting.


The sense of history is also rich. When we took this over, there were linings over some of the walls and we didn’t know what was behind them. When we pulled them off, we were like, “What the…?! What went on in this place?!” There were different wallpapers, different paints. There’s a spot in the Masonic Building where you can make out layers upon layers of handwritten words and graffiti-like pictures on the walls. The imagination fires up in trying to figure out what’s gone on there; what are the stories it could tell? In the place where we are standing right now on the top floor you can see the floorboards are covered in machine oil, so we know there must have been some kind of industrial machine that burned oil and cranked out something that today’s fire codes would never allow! The building has stories to tell in it.

How do you work through the process of deciding what to keep and restore, and what to replace?

If you wind the clock back 30 or 40 years ago, people who thought you needed to preserve the heritage of the city were outcasts. Developers typically wanted to get rid of the old buildings and build anew. The only time the two sides came together was with boxing gloves on. Or bare fists, really. And then as we’ve all matured, caught onto the vision those original few always had, and realised the value of heritage, that’s changed in a really good way. 


The relationship we have with the heritage people is very good. We see them as our partners and they have a real value to add in terms of helping us see and appreciate the heritage that even still we might not quite see on our own. We have them sitting with us right from the beginning of our designs. They’re architects and engineers in their own right, they’re actually part of our design team. Inevitably there is a bit of horse-trading. But it’s very comfortable and healthy negotiation and we always have a common end goal - a beautiful building that’s commercially viable for the long term. Then during the build phase of the project, we have them through every eight weeks or so to talk through the progress of what we’re doing and how that matches up with what we’ve talked about over the last two years of design.

Will these buildings be managed under the New Zealand Building Council Green Star Performance Tool that we work with on other new and refurbished buildings at Britomart?

Very much so. Already Mark Sinclair, Britomart’s director of sustainability, is collecting data and giving feedback that’s useful for us to incorporate into the design as we think about energy use, water use, and the well-being of people who will work in the buildings – not just things that are good for the environment but also things that are good for people. We were musing the other day that what we now think of as business as usual, we’re intrigued over how it often strikes other people as something they are still yet to comprehend the benefit of.