There was no such thing as ‘just another brick in the wall’ when it came to The Hotel Britomart – every one was chosen and cast in concrete with care.
One of the defining characteristics of the downtown Auckland neighbourhood of Britomart is its preserved century-old brick buildings that have been lost in many other parts of the city. For the architects of The Hotel Britomart, that made brick an obvious material to build with, both for its inherent beauty and its appropriateness to place.
What wasn’t so obvious was how to design a 10-storey brick building that wouldn’t fall down in an earthquake, while making it look both modern and completely at ease among its heritage neighbours.
It was a challenge that took the collaboration of four companies – Australian facade supplier Robertsons, structural engineer Holmes Consulting Group, facade engineer Mott McDonald and Auckland’s Cheshire Architects – who settled on a system of concrete structural panels inlaid with hand-made bricks; an intriguing combination of precise engineering, modern production and an ageless material.
“The nine blocks of Britomart were originally outward-facing, with grand facades on Customs and Quay Sts. The hotel sits inside, among the workmanlike, back-of-house brick facades,” says Tom Webster, the architect at Cheshire who oversaw the complex facade design project. “The original brick was probably never meant to be seen and celebrated, but now we appreciate the value of the craft, patina and permanence of industrial structures.”
To complement that original aged, hand-made material, the Cheshire team chose a Melbourne-made ‘Emperor’ (long and slim in shape) brick fired in small batches to a dusty palette of soft grey, sand and cream tones. “We worked hard to avoid delivering a building that looked tiled and overly uniform,” says Tom. “The textural and tonal variation inherent in our chosen brick went a long way towards achieving that.”
To make the dozens of concrete panels knit together seamlessly to the eye, Tom designed a pattern for the brick casting that mixes ‘stack-bonding’ (bricks aligned in vertical columns) with ‘stretcher-bonding’ (with half-length difference from the ones above and below). “The variation in brick bond pattern is reminiscent of a building that has aged and been repaired,” Tom explains. “It also creates visual interference that blurs the panel construction into a more a seamless whole.”
Minor production imperfections in the slip-casting of the bricks were also left to add to the hand-crafted feel of the building. “We didn’t want to repair every quirk, so the occasional tipped brick or hairline crack was allowed to remain so the facade had the nuances of a genuinely hand-laid brick building,” says Tom. “But it’s a fine line between creating character and leaving mistakes.”
To that end, every week for months during the construction of the panels, Tom drove to Wilson Precast – who manufactured the panels – and checked every one of the 150,000 bricks to achieve just the right finish.
For Tom, who originally hails from England and has worked on several heritage building projects, Britomart’s commitment to brick is a treasure. “In a city like Auckland, where there are very few buildings of this nature, what Britomart has is incredibly valuable.”