Buildings on the move
House moving has a long history in New Zealand, largely due to our extensive use of timber construction. The biggest change has been the motive power from bullocks, traction engines and conventional heavy haulage to today’s specialised trucks.
Supermarkets are found around the world, but few countries have building supermarkets. In New Zealand, buyers can walk from door to door inspecting buildings that have been moved from a wide range of original locations to the yard of a specialist building mover. Once a building is selected, a purpose-designed motor unit and trailer will shift it to its new site.
Light timber houses easy to move
New Zealand’s abundant timber resources were not required for fuel or military purposes, as in Europe or the Americas. This, along with the ready availability of machine-made nails, allowed the colony to expand rapidly with timber-framed buildings. Designed to withstand wind and earthquake lateral loads, a relatively light timber building could be manoeuvred up onto the tray of a cart or trailer, then shifted to a new site. As needs changed, new roads were created, natural features (such as creeks) shifted and technology made it possible to move houses as well, not just their contents.
The process has not changed greatly over the years. The building is first cut into acceptable sized pieces and separated from its foundation. Once lifted up about 1.5 m, it is loaded onto a transporter, moved to the final site and placed down.
Timber buildings can be split into parts by judicious use of a saw – in the early days, a handsaw, and more recently, the chainsaw. The same technology has led to other innovative uses – why replace decayed piles by cutting into floorboards due to lack of crawl space, when lifting up the entire house on hydraulic jacks can be just as effective! The building can even be turned or repositioned on its existing site.
Independent lifting to avoid obstacles
More powerful engines, trucks, trailers and ultimately hydraulic jacks to lift the building have allowed the size of shift to increase, but road or bridge loadings and overhead line clearances provide restrictions. The NZ Transport Authority sets the size limits – overall, the transporter unit and the building must be no more than 11 m wide, 35 m long and 6.5 m high, although greater dimensions are possible under certain circumstances.
After the preparatory work is completed, jacks are placed around the building. For the old ‘stumping jacks’, the worker on site worked 12 clicks up on one side followed by 12 clicks on the next and so on, gently lifting the building up with minimal damage. Modern hydraulic jacks are connected by high pressure flexible pipes to one or more central hydraulic engines, each able to lift 3½ or 5 tonnes. The engine gently and smoothly lifts the building up, with each jack lifting the same distance. Observers stationed around the building keep a careful watch to avoid problems.
The trailer can then be moved underneath – before modern hydraulics, the trailer was fixed with a 4 ft (1.2 m) high tray, but now the tray can be lifted up 3 m and adjusted on each side. To cross a bridge, and avoid the hand rails on either side, it was once necessary to lay a surface of blocks to lift up the entire load. Now hydraulics allow each side to be lifted independently – avoiding side rails, safety barriers, trees or parked cars.
A building with itchy feet
Not all buildings are designed to stay in one place. The Star Boating Club on Wellington’s waterfront has had a very unsettled history. Designed by Wellington architect William Chatfield in 1885, it was completed in June 1886. Built on a reclaimed site, the agreement to occupy with the Wellington City Council allowed the council to resume possession of the site. The Evening Post of 5 June 1886 reported that the shed was built ‘so it can be removed bodily, but as its dimensions are considerable, the work of shifting it means the expenditure of a good round sum’.
By August 1889, the council had decided to repossess the site, and on 31 October, the shed ‘started its travels towards its new site’. A steam winch pulled on ropes tied around the building, and it moved along 40 yards of triple rails. As it reached the end of a section, rails were moved around to the front, the winch moved and the process started over again. It took until 14 November to reach the water’s edge, where it stood for some days while the reclamation was completed, before reaching its final destination for the next century.
In 1989, the building was moved 200 m by three purpose-built truck and trailer units to the site it occupies today, not far from Te Papa.
Larger, heavier buildings (or even parts of the building) can also be shifted. Today’s Museum Hotel in Wellington once stood on the site of the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. The 5-storey, 3,500 tonne concrete building was placed on railway bogies resting on second-hand railway track, separated from its foundations and then moved some 80 m along Cable Street. The tracks and bogies were turned, and it crossed the street to reach its current location. The move took 2 days and was watched by many thousands of fascinated onlookers.
Te Papa seems surrounded by moving buildings. On the same side as the Star Boating Club, the 1994 Circa Theatre frontage is the brick facade of the 1916 Westport Chambers Buildings, shifted from its original location across the road (and now facing in the opposite direction).
Download the PDF
Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.