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Plus Architecture expands to NZ and finds challenges abound

Jaimin Atkins
Jaimin Atkins

Australian architecture, masterplanning and interiors practice Plus Architecture has expanded into New Zealand, with former Plus Melbourne architect Jaimin Atkins relocating to NZ as director of the new Christchurch office.

The practice has offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and has completed more than 200 projects in Australia to date, including major commercial, multi-residential, industrial and retirement living developments.

Mr Atkins said expertise from the Australian offices would be called on to work remotely on NZ projects when required.

Christchurch currently has two staff, and Mr Atkins said the plan is to grow the studio through recruiting local talent. Projects already underway include the St Martins Community Centre for Christchurch City Council, and potentially a number of Christchurch retail projects, a hotel, and multi-residential projects in Auckland.

Mr Atkins said the difference in seismic requirements in NZ compared to Australia was one of the major challenges, and that seismic considerations were also having an impact on project budgets.

“The big challenge in Christchurch at the moment is due to cost, continually there is an issue between how much a project costs to build, and how much a developer can realise from it,” he said.

“A lot of the cost is in the ground, and that has taken the margins for developers out of projects.”

This has impacted the St Martins project, where the soil turned out to be worse than thought, so a greater percentage of the budget had to be put towards structural and in-ground works.

The casualty is in many cases sustainability initiatives. There is no minimum energy performance requirement in the NZ construction code, unlike Section J in the Australian code. Mr Atkins said that if the practice was asked by clients to provide better performing design solutions, it would.

“But I haven’t come across too many [NZ] developers or government bodies that will ask for sustainability to be put into a project unless there is a tangible outcome for them in it,” he said.

“The government is trying, I think, to push these things forward, and at the end of the day, it should be leading.”

At the St Martins project, a number of sustainability initiatives that are now fairly much business as usual in Australia, such as rainwater harvesting, LED lighting and low wattage appliances are in the “aspirational” basket for the project.

“If we can find some smart moves that save money in the budget in the rest of the building, then we can hopefully include them,” Mr Atkins said.

What has been designed in to the initial concept are some passive sustainability features, including thermal walls that will be exposed to sunlight for passive heating, operable window systems for natural ventilation and flushing of the building, and skylights to increase the amount of natural light available.

He is hoping to use recycled brick as a facing material, however the bricks may require testing and this may make them cost-prohibitive.

“[Using the brick] would be great for a city that has lost so much heritage,” Mr Atkins said.

The practice’s Australian offices have a substantial track record for infill and urban renewal apartment projects. Mr Atkins said Auckland was starting to look to higher density apartments as a solution to the twin pressures of affordability and population growth.

The big opportunities he sees in Auckland for densification include urban renewal and infill projects near rail links, along public transport corridors, and also on the sites of former quarries and disused industrial sites. Examples he said include Wynyard Quarter on Auckland harbour, and Fletcher’s Three Kings project, which is converting a former quarry into a residential community with a mix of apartments, retail and recreational facilities.

“The previous [apartment] building stock in Auckland couldn’t demand high prices and therefore couldn’t deliver high quality architecture. A lot of the previous stock is really substandard in terms of architecture and design quality and the quality of amenities,” Mr Atkins said.

Educating clients to understand that “great design doesn’t have to cost much” was necessary, he said.

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