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Matter Architects puts design first to create hot office property

Matter boss Jonathan Smith found the College Hill property because one of his architects, Phil Howat, once lived there. He bought the building in 2009, got permission to remove it three years later, and completed a total rebuild on the same footprint in June. 


Smith wanted the working space to be the focal point, which is why it sits in the middle of the office. This area is made up of one long bench “making the space really open for discussion,” Smith says.

The team decided to turn the wall behind the bench into a giant blackboard so they have a space to jot down ideas or brainstorm. Smith says it was all about encouraging creativity within the office.

“No matter what you have to say you can just say it and it’s all about sharing ideas.” Because this area is centered around work, Smith decided to go with hanging lights. He says they are good for work but also, as Howat puts it, “bring a feeling of play to the office”.

The pit

‘The pit’ is a small area to one side of the office, featuring an in-built table and bench seating. “The pit was always seen as an informal space to hang out, meet with clients or have meetings within the office itself,” says Smith. “The idea was to create quite a relaxed space where you step down and it feels far less formal.”

The Matter team wanted to ensure the pit had some privacy and felt slightly separate from the rest of the office. “The screen between the pit and the workspace works to make people feel comfortable in whichever space they’re in, but lets us still keep each area quite open.”

They went with jar lighting to further add to the laid back nature of the space. If they ever want more light, they have the option of using a vintage operating theatre style light which originally served in the Napier hospital in the 1960s.

The sleep-in

There is more to the pit than originally meets the eye though. Tucked away half way up the wall in the corner is a secret sleeping area, which someone can use if they worked late the night before – or possibly had one too many at an office party.

The entrance is hidden behind a set of shelves; remove the shelves and you can get in with the help of a ladder. No one’s letting on how easy this is when under the influence.

Team work

Howat says the design of the office has positively affected the way everyone works – as individuals as well as together. “Its quite nice to be centralized around this working space where we can have good dialogue, but then there is also the option that, if you need a time to break away you just step down to the pit and get a bit of privacy. But then it’s just a flick of the head to the left or right and you can get that communication back.”

Both agree the layout works well for everyone involved and is much better than the typical open plan model seen in many modern offices, where it can be tough to get a moment to yourself.

Company culture

The office design has also affected the company’s culture, Howat says. “There’s no hierarchy. Jon is always going to be the boss because it’s his company, but there’s that freedom of speech where you’re not afraid to speak your mind no matter how stupid it may be. The blackboard is kind of that piece that shows that. That is all it is. You’ve got an idea so you chuck it up and go for it.”

Trials and tribulations

The main challenge with refitting the office was dealing with the heritage restrictions, Smith says. The “two-storey bungalow” on the site was scruffy and had been significantly altered since being built in the 1930s, but blanket zoning meant having to fight to pull it down.

Getting resource and building consents took five years in all, including a year and a half for the actual build. But the drawn-out process also gave them time to get the design right. “Because the resource consent was so challenging we really had time to think about what we were doing and get our head around the design”.

A graduate from the AUT business school with some ad agency experience, Callum takes care of Idealog's social media, the website's look and feel and even does a story here and there.

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