When is a building “Over” height?

In a rare move recently, Wellington City Council publicly notified a building, and exposed it to public comment. While the Architectural Centre did not enter a submission (although we often have done so in the past), it seems that a number of people and organisations did, most of whom seem to have come out against the proposal. This report from the Dominion Post indicates that numbers of submissions against were considerable.

The building sits above the Lambton Traffic Exchange (a fancy name for the bus station), and is due to hold an estimated 1600 workers when full – if and when it is constructed. It is proposed at 14 stories tall, and sits almost besides the Railway station at the bottom of Mulgrave St: nearby is Rutherford House, an equally tall office building currently inhabited by Victoria University, as well as Environment House and Defence House, which are each around 9 stories tall. The closest building, almost engulfed by the proposed new building, is the quirky little electrical substation building shown here:

The chief complaintants against the proposd new building however are the occupants of the nearby Kate Sheppard Apartments, which faces mainly towards the grounds of Parliament to enjoy a westerly view. Crucially however, from the top of the Kate Sheppard apartment building, easterly sea views can be had – these would be lost if the “Kate Sheppard Exchange” building is to go ahead, and that is the real reason the views have been so consistently anti this proposal. Are the residents looking just after their own concerns, in retaining their sea views, or are there other, more valid concerns?

Ian Cassells, the head of the Wellington Company, and currently also head of the Property Council, is strongly against the building on other conditions. He notes in a large article in yesterday’s Dominion Post that “When offices move away, Wellington suffers”, arguing that this building is on the fringe of the CBD, and therefore bad for Wellington. Yet, with this building sitting almost directly above the two key transport interchanges of bus and train, and therefore feeding the proposed 1600 government office workers directly into the established transport system, surely this building is exactly what the District Plan ordered – TOD – or Transport Oriented Development. Cassells is, of course, looking after his own patch – his company is the owner of several “Downtown” buildings, such as the new Willis Central, the quite brilliant Conservation House, and several other properties in the Cuba St area. So what is the reason that he is complaining about here?

As designed, “the building is about four storeys or 30 per cent higher than the 27-metre height provided for in that part of the city.” Tony Gapes, director of the Redwood Group, said they originally planned a lower building on the site. But “working through the conceptual design phases with the Wellington City Council urban design team we were encouraged to `make a statement’ and `create a bookend’ to this end of Lambton Quay.” Mr Gapes said that “We were encouraged to go higher by the WCC urban design team and to have a building that provides `design excellence’.”

An extra 4 floors is not a huge amount of extra height, and at least some of this will be mitigated by the fact the building is sitting at the base of a cliff, but none-the-less, for the Council to advocate for extra height above and beyond the “height limit” is an unusual move – and one that implies that the height limits as stated in the District Plan are, in some cases, quite wrong. Is this one of those cases?

There have certainly been other cases of the Council approving buildings higher than the height limit – indeed, nearly every single application for a new building in the Te Aro basin (traditionally noted as part of the “Low City”) has in recent years been at, or through the height limit. Indeed, the Eye of the Fish website noted that a proposed new apartment building in Taranaki St was recently approved without being publicly-notified, and that also was 30% in excess of the height limit. So, there appear to be rules for some buildings or areas that do not apply to other buildings or areas – who, or what, is governing this anomaly?

Curiously, despite what it sounds like, the phrase “Height Limit” does not mean what it says. Logically, you may think that a height limit is a level to which a building height may not exceed – that a building on that site would not be allowed to go higher than. It appears however, that if you thought that, then you would be wrong. A height limit is one which you are not “Permitted” to go, as of right. But just because there is no automatic Permission for such exceeding of the height, there is nothing to stop you asking for Permission for extra height. The Council is allowed a certain amount of discretion for granting extra height, and items like aerials, chimneys, and roof gables are allowed as of right. They also have the authority to grant up to 35% extra height if the building being discussed displays “Design Excellence” and that is the most contentious part. The Eye of the Fish website discussed this very matter of design excellence at this building at the Kate Sheppard Exchange as well.

Design excellence is obviously a highly subjective field, and therefore a bit of a minefield for discussion. Is this building going to be the test case for discussion?


6 responses to “When is a building “Over” height?”

  1. James Avatar

    I do like the way the new building molds itself around the old sub-station and a new set of stairs are worked into the cliff to enhance the permeability of the city block. The building is doing some good basic urban design moves at ground level for sure.
    Regarding it’s height though – it’s to the south of most of it’s neighbours, so it is not going to take any sunshine away. Does it really matter that it is tall?

  2. Maximus Avatar

    Interesting to note that the “Stalla” website (of the Taranaki St apartment building you highlight in your article) claims that:
    “Wellington City Council has confirmed Stalla has achieved Design Excellence. The design has been checked and approved by the city’s Urban Designers. Stalla will be a contribution to the architecture of the city. Stalla – a truly iconic building you will feel proud to call home.”

    So there you have it – if the Urban Designers say it has Design Excellence, then it has. The trouble is, now everyone is claiming that their project is excellent – would any self-respecting architect say their scheme was not excellent? Would anyone (apart from Gerald Ratner, of course… and look where it got him) ever voluntarily say their project or product was crap?

  3. de minimis Avatar
    de minimis

    “would any self-respecting architect say their scheme was not excellent? Would anyone (apart from Gerald Ratner, of course… and look where it got him) ever voluntarily say their project or product was crap?”

    There’s a whole world between excellent and crap. When a building’s height, massing and location don’t make it stand out, it doesn’t need to be “excellent”: it just needs to be a good background building that contributes to the urban fabric. But if it’s prominent, then it will stand out no matter what, and it should have a visual appeal commensurate with that prominence. Sometimes it might do that through sculptural form, a dramatic roofscape or innovative cladding. Sometimes it might be through an unusually imaginative response to context. Other times it might just be about elegant proportions and crisp detailing. It all depends upon the site, the brief and the architects’ design choices.

    And finally, a building might be “excellent” for the client and occupants, because of its interior spaces, social functions, engineering feats or efficiencies, without exhibiting “design excellence” in the sense required by the district plan. An example might be the DoC refit, which does some dramatic and inventive things on the inside, but is relatively undemonstrative on the outside.

  4. thomas Avatar

    I agree with de minimis, but, wonder whether a whole lot more transparency about the decisions might help…? (unless I’m missing where such info is avaialble?). This is where the design panel in Auckland might potentially have at least one advantage over the WCC in-house approach… just a thought…

  5. de minimis Avatar
    de minimis

    “I agree with de minimis, but, wonder whether a whole lot more transparency about the decisions might help…? (unless I’m missing where such info is avaialble?).”

    Resource consents and advisors’ reports are public information, available through a LGOIMA request or (in most cases) just through asking the RC team at the council. Granted, it would be much better if RC information were simply published on the WCC site, but I gather (from those in the know) that it’s a much a technical and bandwidth issue as a policy one. Seeing the decision or urban design report is helpful, but could be misleading without the full application or at least approved plans, which are often hundreds of megabytes.

    Otherwise, Maximus may have some inside knowledge.

  6. Maximus Avatar

    Maximus always has the inside knowledge… actually, no, tempting as it may be, the Fish does not have that much inside knowledge. While the RC Team’s final findings are indeed available to the public on asking, by that stage the decision has already been made. Eye of the Fish does not have access to info on a project underway, any more than Arch Centre does, or any member of the public – but we do have a far bit of nous about how it is all put together.
    Something like Design Excellence is a tricky little number though, and as Arch Centre says in the original article, it is indeed a bit of a mine field I would have thought. Or perhaps more like Pandora’s box – once you’ve let it out, you can never get it back in again. Or is that a Jack in a Box?

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