147 years and counting: NZ's oldest architecture practice

147 years and counting: NZ's oldest architecture practice

Architectural names come and go as firms are established then are assimilated into larger operations, or just cease to exist. But one name has been constant since the very beginning of the profession in this country. Mason and Wales is New Zealand’s oldest practice. 

With its reputation for quality design and thorough documentation as well as stringent cost control and adhering to time constraints, the practice has fostered many strong, successful long term client relationships during its 147 year lifetime. Mason and Wales has been involved in a wide range of architectural commissions and projects all over New Zealand, many of which have been recognised by awards and satisfied clients, contractors, building users and communities.

The story of Mason and Wales starts in 1863 when it was founded by William Mason, the first architect to live and work in New Zealand. Mason, whose father and grandfather were both architects, was born in England but emigrated to New South Wales in 1838 to work for the Colonial Architect. In 1840, he sailed to Auckland where he tried many occupations including auctioneering, farming and politics as well as architecture. As a member of parliament, he moved south to Dunedin to enjoy the prosperity of a town suddenly enriched by the discovery of gold. He became the first mayor and then in 1877, retired to Lake Wakatipu. Among his well-known buildings are the former Government House in Auckland and St Matthew’s Church and the Otago Daily Times offices in Dunedin.

Mason was later joined by Nathaniel Wales who came from Scotland to Dunedin from Victoria in 1861. Wales was originally employed by Mason as clerk of works on the Bank of New Zealand building. He had no strict architectural training but nor had many men describing themselves as architects at that time. What he did have was an outstanding knowledge of the practical side of building and his sound head soon led him to parliament. He subsequently also became mayor Dunedin. Later on Wales’ son joined the firm and helped design some of the largest and most important public, mercantile and private houses in the city and in various other parts of New Zealand. Although he is no longer a director, the third Wales, Niel is still involved with the firm to this day.

Today Mason & Wales undertakes a diverse range of projects of all types and sizes throughout new Zealand. Architectural projects include new construction as well as alterations, additional and refurbishment of buildings of all types, including historic and heritage protected buildings. Planning projects include small and large scale Urban Planning and Land developments.

The Directors of Mason & Wales are Ashley Muir and Francis Whitaker, and the team includes 15 staff members with a diversity and depth of experience in all facets of architectural practice.

We caught up with third generation architect Hamish Muir to talk about the recent history and the future of Mason & Wales.

You have been involved with NZGBC Green Star Rated Buildings training courses. How has Sustainability influenced your work in recent years?

Sustainability is a word that has become fashionable over the last decade. However sustainability is not a matter of fashion, but common sense and survival.

Mason & Wales Architects is committed to the sustainable management of global natural resources and social sustainability, and these factors inform all aspects of our work.

We have been incorporating passive energy conservation measures in the planning and design of our buildings for many years, as well as the intelligent planning and orientation of buildings, high levels of insulation, thermal mass provisions and various other architectural techniques for energy conservation and solar control.

We specify environmentally sustainable materials and consider life cycle costs when selecting building materials and components.

In recent years public awareness of Environmentally Sustainable Design (ESD) has significantly increased, and the industry is responding to this by promoting green construction materials and practices. ESD can also now be measured and quantified with Rating Tools such as Green Star which further increases awareness and continues to raise the bar for all buildings.

Mason & Wales Architects are the principal consultant for the South Islands first Registered NZGBC Design Rated Office Building for the Otago Regional Council, targeting a 5 Star rating signifying ‘New Zealand Excellence” for Design and Construction.

There will have undoubtedly been huge changes for Mason & Wales in the last 150 odd years. What are the most notable changes you have experienced in the recent history of the practice? 

Over the last 30 years since Ash was about my age, there have been a number of wide ranging changes,

People’s styles of living and working have evolved, so the way we plan buildings has also changed to adapt to this and encourage new ways of living. For example commercial buildings are shifting to good quality open plan office environments and residential projects have a strong focus on the kitchen and connection to outdoor living spaces. 

Legislation and various planning and design rules and processes have significantly increased, which in turn has changed how we need to operate. This can be seen in the architectural drawings  we produce – houses in the 70s could often be documented on a single A1 sheet of paper, whereas today we would often use a dozen or more sheets to document a similarly sized house. 

New building products and systems have come available, offering a wider selection of materials, finishes and components and new possibilities with larger areas of glazing, and intelligent control of some building elements, etc 

Computers have obviously resulted in a significant change in how we function, As well as 2D and 3D CAD software; we now operate publishing, network and administration software with things like email making is easy for us to be involved remotely with projects all over New Zealand. 

What are the benefits of being one of the most well-established practices?

One of the benefits of being in a well respected and established practice is that we understand and respect who we are as a firm, and are careful to maintain our core values and respect the experience of senior team members. We take pride in maintaining traditional methods where appropriate, such as our hand drawn drawings for sketch design purposes. 

It is important that we stay true to core concepts and principals of architecture and business, and we carefully consider and test ‘new’ methods and changes before adopting them. 

What are the most exciting projects you have been involved with? 

The most exciting project is always ‘the next one’!

  • I am currently working on a new house for a cool American family on a great site near Wanaka. 

The other exciting projects are the ones that don’t get built!

  • The Head Office Building for the ORC was a really exciting project, both as a building and also for Dunedin City as it will be the catalyst for the redevelopment of our wonderful Harbour Basin. 

I think it is important to get excited about ‘everyday’ buildings.

  • A PAK’n SAVE Supermarket for example, if well designed can add some delight to the everyday lives of hundreds of people. Simple things such as introducing large glazed areas to provide views and natural light to shoppers, and bold materials and use of colour can really add some X factor to what may otherwise be a just a building, and hopefully improve the experience of the building user. 

Where do you see Mason & Wales heading in the future? 

Francis and Ashley have been working extremely hard since they joined the firm 20 of 30 years ago, and have built the firm into the successful and respected firm that it is today, and added real value to the brand of Mason & Wales.  

I guess they will be thinking about slowing down a bit, and consider retiring, although most great architects never retire and often continue working to produce their best buildings! I expect that Ash and Francis will continue to be very involved with the office, and keep a close eye on things for many years to come. 

Regan Johnston and I are associates in the firm, and work closely with Ashley and Francis. We went through architecture school together, and have complimentary skills and personalities. We are learning a lot from the senior guys here and developing a strong team around us, I think that we can offer a lot to Mason & Wales in the years ahead.  

It is a privilege and huge responsibility to be involved with a firm that is so important in the history of architecture in New Zealand. It is a wonderful opportunity, and I am excited about current and future projects and working hard to maintain and enhance the reputation of ‘Mason & Wales’ for quality design, documentation and construction delivery of projects all around New Zealand.

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