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New Christchurch building a model of efficient office design

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The new Christchurch UniMed building comprises modern office and retail options – the steel, glass and terracotta facade references the Isaac Theatre Royal

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The UniMed building incorporates what it needs to in terms of building compliance integral to a not-so-long-ago earthquake-decimated city. However, the gleaming structure is the model of modern commercial architecture in other ways too.

While the existing UniMed building was irrevocably damaged in June 2011, the narrow buildings to left and right both collapsed. Too small to merit a rebuild, these adjacent properties were bought by UniMed, allowing space for a larger, taller building.

Pursuing this, the owners asked Wilson and Hill Architects to create a 50% bigger, four-storey building, with UniMed's own offices on the top, two levels of rentable office space below this and street-engaged retail spaces at ground level.

Wilson and Hill director Chris Wilson says the steel frame building has a light but strong steel-and-glass facade with a side tower in light but strong Glassfibre Reinforce Concrete (GRC). The tower's mass balances the lighter aesthetic of the facade.

"The facade's materials and proportions are a strong architectural nod to the thankfully still intact Isaac Theatre Royal up the road," says Wilson. "Terracotta fins on the new building reference the brickwork of the Isaac, and the proportions are similar. For example, the slender canopy on the new frontage echoes the top ribbon of the theatre. And both buildings have strong bases."

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Another aspect of the facade is that its perceived levels do not actually correspond to the floor levels behind – this helped keep the relative proportions to the nearby theatre and added visual interest.

Besides bringing balance to the glass facade, the tower is a key aspect of the building's modern appeal for the business and retail community.

"The stairs, lifts, and toilets are all located in the tower clearing the way for large, open floorplates, which are the ideal for contemporary office design," says Wilson. "In addition, a light well is tucked between the front and rear sections of the tower flooding light down through the floors, and the staircase has a tall glass window and glass roof, adding to the abundance of natural light. This light-filled stairwell acts as a mini atrium for the building."

Part of UniMed's brief to Wilson and Hill was that the building have a strong, uncomplicated appeal – as befitting the premises of a medical insurance company. And the same applied when they briefed the architects for their own fit-out on the top floor.

"Naturally we wanted to make the most of the good bones of the new building – optimising the natural light play and long sightlines set up by the open floorplates," says Wilson. "As part of this we put all the messy aspects of office life in two central curvaceous pods. The timber pod conceals office machinery and the yellow pod, two quiet rooms.

"The pods also strategically screen out areas of the offices without appearing overbearing."

The pods are clad in vertical slatwork, one wood, the other in yellow, and as with the facade the pods also create a sense of illusion. Both appear to push up through the ceiling plane. In addition, the reception desk and pod behind it are further delineated by a raised ceiling area with hidden lighting.

Checkered carpet tiles create a wayfinding element on the otherwise neutral carpeted floors.

First published date: 04 November 2016

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Credit List

Project UniMed, Christchurch
Architect and interior designer Chris Wilson, Wilson and Hill Architects
Structural engineer Lewis & Bradford
Mechanical/ electrical engineer Powell Fenwick Consultants
Quantity surveyor Rawlinsons
Fire consultant Powell Fenwick Consultants
Cladding James Hardie ExoTec
Roof Dimond Veedek Longrun steel roof; Equus membrane
Facade design/construction Alucobond – aluminium composite panel
Glazing Canterbury Aluminium, Southern Steel Windows
Lifts Schindler
Partitioning systems Potters Interior Systems; Lindsay and Dixon Ltd – Southland Maple Beech
Hardware Hettich from Sopers Macindoe
Blinds Window Treatments
Drapes James Dunlop
Tiling SCE Stone & Design
Flooring Polyflor vinyl Wall treatments Polyflor vinyl, Ecoustic panels by Vivid Textiles
Ceiling Forman Armstrong Ultima ceiling tiles
Paints Resene; intumescent paint by Leigh Paints
Workstations Aspect Furniture