Revamp honours UBS building’s past

Interior windows let light from the living areas pass into the bedrooms behind.
Interior windows let light from the living areas pass into the bedrooms behind.
The apartments at the front of the building have balconies overlooking the Otago Museum reserve.
The apartments at the front of the building have balconies overlooking the Otago Museum reserve.
The existing light well had to go with the change in layout, but this lightweight, timber-framed...
The existing light well had to go with the change in layout, but this lightweight, timber-framed replacement pulls light into the first floor communal corridor and the bookshop below.
Original timber in one of the apartments.
Original timber in one of the apartments.

A revamp of a well-known Dunedin building makes the most of its original character features, reports Kim Dungey.

A $5.5million redevelopment has added apartments to a building long associated with Dunedin writers, readers and academics.

Work on the University Book Shop building preserved many of its original features while modernising the interior.

The Great King St building is owned by the Otago University Students’ Association, which says it is a great example of what can be done with heritage properties.

An upgrade of the bookshop on the building’s ground floor was the first part of the project to be completed. The retail space is now lighter and more open; the entry, complete with new platform lift, has been moved back to its original location in the centre of the facade.

More recently, workers finished converting the first floor — previously used by the shop as a sale room and offices - into six apartments.

With exposed brick walls and high timber roof trusses, apartments on top of the University Book...
With exposed brick walls and high timber roof trusses, apartments on top of the University Book Shop have been designed to feel like a modern building, while keeping the building’s historical features. PHOTOS: GERARD O’BRIEN

A light well at the centre of the building pulls natural light into the back of the bookshop and the first floor communal corridor. Bedrooms and bathrooms are illuminated by skylights and by clerestory windows, the tops of which are 5.8m above floor level.

The soaring ceilings create a spacious feel and all of the units have 10sq m balconies, some overlooking the Otago Museum reserve.

Mark Todd, of project managers Feldspar, said the original light well had to be replaced and floorboards and floor joists could not be saved. But the original sarking (matchstick linings), trusses and columns were exposed and, where possible, the original brickwork was put on display in the living areas.

Window openings remained the same size, but the glass was removed from those facing the street to form the outdoor balconies.

The 18-month project also involved upgrading the fire, ventilation and electrical systems, removing asbestos, and insulating and strengthening the property, taking it to 100% of new building standards.

"There’s an entirely new structural steel portal frame, with associated foundations. The unreinforced masonry has been restrained on the first floor at the floor and ceiling level and tied together using Python screws. There’s also a new floor diaphragm at first floor level."

The historically significant building on Dunedin’s one-way system was originally a confectionery...
The historically significant building on Dunedin’s one-way system was originally a confectionery factory. The University Book Shop moved in 60 years ago.

OUSA chief executive Debbie Downs said the revamped building was a "real asset for the city".

"To bring it up to modern building code and for it to feel like a modern building while keeping those historic features, is incredible.

‘We’ve been able to keep a heritage building alive and well for the next 100 years while helping the housing crisis in Dunedin and it’s a great investment for the association."

While that investment was seen as a long-term one, the building could be sold in the future to buy something that benefited students more directly, she added.

"We need a student bar, somewhere for students to socialise, and that’s sadly lacking in north Dunedin.

"This asset is in a state that if we ever found the right building and needed to purchase it, then this could be sold."

Peter Rawling, of NZPS Property Management, said five of the six apartments were already rented.

One tenant became a convert to apartment living while teaching in South Korea and continued to live in inner city units when she returned to New Zealand. Liesel Mitchell, who does not drive, said being in the city centre meant she could walk most places.

Former OUSA president James Heath stands in the top floor of the University Book Shop building in...
Former OUSA president James Heath stands in the top floor of the University Book Shop building in 2019, before renovations began. PHOTO: OTAGO DAILY TIMES FILES

That proximity to amenities was a consideration when she and her partner decided to move back to her home town from Wellington.

"He likes to have nature and greenery and trees and I like to be right in the middle of the city, so we were, like, how do we find something that’s ... not too concrete but also nice and close to everything?

"When we saw these ‘apartments to be built’— and it was just architectural drawings on Trade Me, no photos — I was like ‘that would be the super coolest place to live’."

A quality manager and PhD candidate, she was familiar with the UBS building from her time as a student at the University of Otago in the 1990s, Ms Mitchell said.

"It was really funny. I put a picture up on Facebook, just to say ‘I’ve moved back to Dunedin, this is my new view, any guesses as to where I am?’ And one of my friends came back saying, ‘Are you at the University Book Shop? Are you upstairs? Are you in the poetry section?’ It is quite strange when I can visualise how it was [before], but it’s lovely."

Their apartment had a balcony overlooking the museum reserve, but was quiet and private, with the high ceilings and trusses creating a warehouse feel.

An increasing number of people wanted to live closer to the city, some because they didn’t have cars or didn’t want the costs associated with a bigger house, she said. Apartments were also an appealing option for younger people and could help to keep them in Dunedin.

"We’ve got so many wonderful buildings that are part of Dunedin’s charm ... It would be really lovely if we could retain that sense of architecture from different eras and ... repurpose them for different things."

History

Designed by prominent Dunedin architect Edmund Anscombe, the UBS building was originally home to Romison’s Confectionery factory.

Russian Jewish emigrant Julius Romison arrived in Dunedin in the mid 1880s and started making fancy confectionery and chocolate; by 1920, he employed 40 workers.

This purpose-built property opened in 1910 and continued to serve as Romison’s factory until the 1940s.

The business later became known as Regina Confections and relocated to Oamaru.

One of New Zealand’s largest independent  bookshops, the University Book Shop, moved into the building in the early 1960s.

Charles Brasch, editor of the leading literary journal, Landfall, was also based there about the same time.

The three triangular gables are the building’s most distinctive feature and until recently were used in the bookshop’s marketing.

Heritage New Zealand listed the building as a category 2 historic place in 2018.