They were built more than a century ago as warehouses to serve Auckland’s busy port. Now the layers of beautiful timber and brick of Britomart's Barrington and Sofrana Buildings are being revealed for a new era, as Britomart-based architecture practice Peddlethorp works to transform the two buildings on Customs Street East and Galway Street into new offices and ground-floor retail and hospitality spaces. Melinda Williams talks to Peddlethorp architect Nicolau Domingues about how these beautiful buildings are more relevant than ever.

Melinda Williams: Hi Nicolau. The Peddlethorp team worked earlier on the refurbishment of the Australis and Nathan Buildings (now home to Tiffany & Co, Chanel and Miann, and Duncan Cotterill, Anderson Lloyd and Hobson Wealth in the office spaces above). Could you start by telling us a little about the background of the Barrington and Sofrana Buildings?

Nicolau Domingues: Both buildings were designed by the same architect, John Currie, an Irishman who was also a founding member of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. His design for Sofrana House was completed in 1900, and for the adjacent Barrington Building in 1905. Each building has its own architectural style. They were warehouse buildings: Sofrana House was originally a warehouse for a British company – Messrs P Hayman & Co – that dealt in jewellery, tobacco, crockery, musical goods and more. The Barrington Building was originally the G. Kronfeld Building. Gustav Kronfeld was a very successful trading merchant who grew up in Prussia, as it was called then and we now know generally as Germany, and had lived in the Pacific before moving to Auckland. He had a Samoan wife, Louisa, and traded in goods from the Pacific Islands. But when WWI broke out, there was a suspicion of people [with German ancestry], so he was interned in Motuihe Island and the Barrington building was confiscated. Not a very good ending. He collected a lot of wonderful treasures from the islands, which his descendants gifted to the national museum. 

MW: Once the buildings are refurbished, what will the experience of walking into them be like?

ND: They will be pretty impressive. If you’re going in through the main office entry on Galway Street, it’s all very modern with a cantilevered canopy and massive pivot doors – very grand. And the exposed timber structure over the lobby is five metres high. Once inside, you’ll see the new insertion of the steel and glass lift and stairs core which runs all the way up and through the building. This is a strong sculptural element that injects some ‘new’ into the building, but sensitively – it echoes the steel straps and braces used in the original construction. The original brick walls are being exposed and cleaned. The two buildings are being joined to give their users the option of large continuous floor plates. We’re also revealing the original natural timber structures, with kauri floors and jarrah columns. They’ve all been cleaned back by garnet-blasting them, which removes paint but doesn’t damage the bricks, and reveals the original saw marks in the timber.

MW: Did you have any particular architectural references for the way you approached the restoration?

ND: There’s a building in America, the Bradbury Building, which was in the movie Bladerunner, that was built around the same time, 1893. It has these wrought-iron stairs and lifts that were of the period, and a big glass canopy atrium in the centre. So we referenced that beauty in this project – in a modern version, but that same type of feel. We’ve been very strict about keeping everything in one of the structural bays in steel, because we didn’t want to introduce any new materials apart from what was required for circulation. When we designed the lifts, we added a skylight to the roof above where the lifts are, to bring light down through the floors. So when you move through the building, whether you’re using the glass lifts or the steel stairs, you see all the little ledges and joist pockets that existed where the timber floors used to be, and you get a sense of how the original building was made, which we think is quite a special experience.

MW: What about the modern technical elements of the office spaces, those details that make the spaces comfortable environments to work in?

ND: We were a little bit obsessive around the new elements – in an office building, the integration of services is key. The main services vertical risers are hidden behind recycled timber cladding and the horizontal distribution of air-conditioning ducts and electrical cable trays on each floor are architecturally amped up because they are all exposed up under the beautiful timber ceilings. Everything has been aligned with the heavy timbers to maximise the internal heights, whilst being sympathetic to the rhythm of the timber structure.
The lighting is a cutting-edge dali system that provides for almost infinite control of every light fitting and can control the brightness and dimming of each. There are light sensors so the system can automatically adjust itself according to the sunlight coming in. You will get a lot of natural light from the northern facade on Galway Street because the arched windows are quite beautifully large; these windows will have new sashes and be reglazed for improved acoustics and energy (heating and cooling) efficiency.
The bathroom blocks are completely new and very modern, with floor to ceiling LED lighting, minimalistic fixtures, and very particular detailing, though you don’t see that from the office areas, because they’re clad in recycled timber boards to integrate them into the original fabric.

MW: That sense of history makes character buildings lovely to work in, doesn’t it?

ND: With a heritage building, it’s a unique space, where you have an experience that you couldn’t have anywhere else. We think there’s such a richness of character in these spaces that there’s always something to fall in love with. We [Peddle Thorp] are in a heritage building here in the Northern Steamship building in Britomart, and we just feel so fortunate to be here.