Buying guide

What features to prize in a character apartment

What to look for in a character apartment as top ones emerge

Apartment living isn’t for everyone. A modern city pad can be a bridge too far if you’re used to a generous family home. But an airy, character apartment in a converted office building can give you all the space you need. And, if you’ve got a strong sense of history, a delightful story to tell and feel a part of.

The former Municipal Electricity Department building at 40 Cuba Street, Wellington (the waterfront end of Cuba Street) built in the 1930s, used to be known as Electricity House. It was where Wellingtonians would come to pay their electricity bills and it used to showcase the latest electrical appliances to everyones’ interest.

Now known as Edisons on Cuba Street, Wellington developer Ian Cassels, head of The Wellington Company, has turned this well-known five storey building into 10 boutique character apartments over four floors with two penthouses on the rooftop. The apartments range in size from five bedrooms, to two and three bedroom dual key properties.

With 300 sq m floor plates, the developer and his architect had plenty of space to work with, says Rakesh Champaneri, sales consultant with The Wellington Company.

Newly modernised, these Cuba Street character apartments have a number of the bells and whistles of brand new builds, sophisticated lighting plans with wireless remotes and big entertainers’ kitchens with stone benchtops.

A key question to ask with any Wellington apartment building, new or old, is whether it’s seismically strong. In the case of Edisons, it has a 70% NBS (New Building Standard) rating which satisfies all the banks, says Rakesh.

The building owner has kept heritage features including the steel crittal style windows, polished matai flooring and the columns. And the lofty ceiling stud height ranging from 2.4 m to 3.4 m, has also remained. Each level has its own lobby when you come out of the lift, which is a nice touch. Stairs lead up to each level if you don’t want to take the lift – and there’s art deco detailing on many floors.

“People are really loving the character features. We’ve set up one apartment to be fully furnished and staged and when anyone comes in, their jaws drop,” says Rakesh.

The bedrooms are 20 sq m to 35 sq m each, he adds, some larger than a studio apartment. Miles Seddon, designer at Seddon & Associates, has made modifications which provide light-filled bathrooms and additional flexible living space.

The apartments are priced from $1.65 million, says Rakesh, who adds half the apartments are dual key, an apartment divided into two dwellings, with two separate doors. These work well for investors, for blended families, and those wanting an income.

“We’re seeing all kinds of buyer enquiry,” the agent says. People up-sizing, downsizing, families coming into town from the suburbs and investors who like the dual key option. First home buyers are also looking at the dual key apartments, with the idea that they’d rent out the smaller unit at $800 a week, says Rakesh.

Each apartment is a bit different to fit in with the building's original design.This is an advantage character apartments have over brand new builds which tend to be a bit “cookie cutter,” the sales consultant believes.

The buyers character apartments attract

Character apartments tend to attract owner-occupiers more than other types of apartments because they are places people fall in love with. At a Willis Street apartment building in Wellington, known as the Augusta Apartments, there are a number of tenants, but they’re professionals who enjoy the lifestyle at the building as much as the owner-occupiers, says Harcourts agent Jane Park.

The original entrance hallway of the former dental school, built in 1940 and converted into apartments in 2004, has kept its sweeping staircase in the entry which helps make it feel like the original building, says the Harcourts agent.

“It feels like a communal space rather than a destination,” she says.

The four bedroom, two bathroom apartment she’s selling at the former Wellington Dental School at 254 Willis Street, is a perfect blend of heritage and modern design, says the agent. With a high seismic rating (90% NBS), the building has had 12 years of remedial work done, and the apartment, currently for sale at $1.25 million, has double glazing, something that’s not always guaranteed in a character building. Many of the apartments have a mezzanine floor or, as with no.16, two levels.

The Willis Street building had top floor penthouses and they’re bigger and grander with more windows, says Jane.

A number of older character apartment buildings in Wellington have had these kinds of additions on the upper level in the past couple of decades. Jane who, herself, lives in an upper level apartment in a beautiful character 1900s Wellington city building, says two floors were added in the early 2000s. She’s now putting in historical features to the apartment, features like Victorian Scotia boards, to help make it look like it’s always been there.

What conservation architects say

The conversion of older office buildings into attractive character apartments is bringing life back to the city. As fewer office workers come into the city every day with flexible working the norm, people living and working from these character apartments are a welcome addition.

The Heritage Practice’s Moira Smith, a conservation architect and heritage adviser to the Wellington City Council, gives another reason for their value.

“Our historic buildings are a non-renewable resource and keeping them in a suitable long term use is an important part of sustainable development in our cities and towns,” she says. These buildings can be great places to live, set in prime locations in the centre of the city, and close to everything that we need, adds Moira.

“When I look at these kinds of spaces I work out what’s important, what’s the story a building has to tell,” explains the archittect. You’re trying to keep things that don’t need to be changed and to hand them over to the next generation.

“These buildings can be a bit quirky, there might be a fireplace in a bedroom and you just use the mantlepiece. You might not have laid out your house like this if you were starting from scratch but you just adapt,” she adds.

The common spaces are often the best parts of these character buildings, says the architect. “Owners will put a bit more money into those parts of the building that the public went to, they’re trying to say something about their business,” she says.

At the time they were built, owners spent money on beautiful, expensive finishes. “It’s almost as if the building is giving you something for free. Often these entrance areas are very high quality and you couldn’t be able to buy the materials again,” adds Moira.

“It adds value to the development and adds pleasure to the people who come and live in the building and keeps us connected to the past,” says the heritage architect.

A good sensitive adaptation of a heritage building contributes to the vibrancy of our cities, and to the well-being of our communities, she adds.

Slessor Architects is a well known architecture practice in Wellington that does conservation work. Architect graduate, Emelia Atkins says the company worked on converting an office building at 45 Cuba St into 10 apartments.

“Old buildings have a richness and uniqueness,” says Emelia. At 45 Cuba Street, each apartment has their own unique bit of the building and they were all slightly different because of the beams.

It’s rewarding when a building returns to its initial purpose. At the Slessor premises at 170 Cuba Street with Duck Island and Olive restaurant below, the building is a mixture of apartments on the top, offices in the middle, and retail on the ground.

It was designed that way 100 years ago, a fruit shop there for many years on the street level, says Emeilia.