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University restores three Symonds Street Merchant Houses

University restores three Symonds Street Merchant Houses

Boxes of old election results and newspapers from the 1930s were among discoveries made during the recently completed $4.5 million restoration of three historic Merchant Houses on the University of Auckland’s City Campus.

As a tribute to the significant work done to protect the heritage buildings, the historical names of the three houses – Belgrave (12 Symonds Street), Okareta (14 Symonds Street) and Mona (16 Symonds Street) - have been reintroduced.

The work took 18 weeks to complete, and was not without some interesting drama.

Site Manager Steve Connor of Aspec Construction says images taken on a colleague’s cellphone during the demolition of walls in Mona came back with an eerie grey figure in the scene.

“He became superstitious and insisted on forwarding the image to another team member because he didn’t want to keep it on his phone.”

Built in 1884-85 in the Italianate style, which was favoured by merchants in late colonial Auckland, the houses have been carefully restored to make them safe and protect their Historic Places Trust ranking as ‘places of historical or cultural heritage significance or value’.

The restoration work, triggered by the need for seismic strengthening and damp-proofing, needed to balance the requirement to restore the houses with the decision to keep alterations already made, such as additional windows that were added in the 1970s.

To adhere to earthquake strengthening requirements, the buildings have been put together with about 40,000 screws rather than weaker nails, and much trouble has gone into sourcing wood for skirting boards and architraves to match the original kauri profiles.

The complete retrofit and refurbishment has included the addition of a subfloor concrete slabs that structurally tie the existing footings together, the installation of steel connections between floors and walls, the spray application of silicon fibre reinforced plaster (Flexus) to selected walls, and new structural plywood diaphragms installed at roof level

To stop the rising damp issues the sub-grade exterior masonry walls were injected with a specially imported waterproofing compound used extensively in Europe and waterproof plaster applied to internal faces. The basement exterior paint was removed and a breathable paint wash applied to match the existing finish. The basement sub-floors are now continuously mechanically ventilated so that any rising moisture laden air is vented outside.

Neil Buller, project manager, of the University’s Property Services office, says Aspec Construction put in a “sterling effort” and the old houses would now be there for another 100 years.

The restored Merchant houses are now home to 31 Faculty of Arts Office and Administration staff, including the Dean of Arts, Professor Robert Greenberg. The houses will also provide seven spaces for visiting and emeriti staff, three small group teaching spaces for Tuākana and First Year Experience, and a small office for the Arts Students Association.

Director of Faculty Operations Jarrod Shearer says staff are enjoying their new surroundings since they moved in over the past two weeks.

“One of the best features of the move is that it has provided centralised, dedicated space for our students groups and associations,” he says.

The three houses also give the faculty staff the chance to work in the same area of the university for the first time instead of being in different offices across the City Campus.

“The biggest change is that we are now more accessible to all staff and are much easier to find. We are already benefitting from the opportunity to get together and talk with each other in the communal tea room space for the three houses.”

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