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Changing the space

28 May 2021
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Qb Studios founders (from left) Mike Fisher, Tom Harding and Alex Brennan, at the St Asaph Street shared workspace that was once a warehouse

An elderly factory full of Vespas has been turned into a shared workspace in Christchurch, with an almost transcendental feeling due to clever design.
And it all started at a rugby club in Rio de Janeiro. Words Shelley Robinson Photos Charlie Rose Creative

It was an old Christchurch rubber factory full of old Vespas and car parts that caught the eye of three treasure hunters.

Qb Studios’ Alex Brennan, Michael Fisher and Tom Harding weren’t after the shiny and new for their third shared workspace building – more the old and charming. And a Vespa-ridden warehouse on Southwark Street certainly fit the bill.

Alex is now sitting in a café-like cubicle in one of the shared common areas in the refurbished factory as he pauses from talking to find the right words.

“We look for buildings that may have been forgotten or that some aspect of their natural character isn’t being fully displayed or appreciated. And we come in to reveal that and build a setting like you almost would for a jewel on a ring,” he says.

He has a way with words, does Alex.

And what a fine setting the trio have created. Not only has the former factory been transformed, but a mirror copy has been built seamlessly to enlarge it.

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The two halves create a building in which the new respectfully doffs its hat to the old. In the café, original brickwork – both raw and painted – combines with exposed trusses and an old gantry crane hanging from the ceiling to meld with the sleek modern interiors. The contrast of the white bricks with cascading greenery creates a certain ambience of, well, serenity. It seems such an odd word to use for a workplace.

When you think of a traditional place of work, it brings to mind the horrors of flickering fluorescent lights (which someone has to hammer at with a broom handle), bleak rows of desks, the incessant sound of keyboards clicking and truly awful coffee bought en masse on some sort of trade card.

But walking through the bright, airy corridors of Qb Studios has almost a transcendental feel to it. Roof windows send light streaming down through exposed white pillars. Where there would be interior walls, there are windows. The soaring atriums are a delight, with carefully considered features, such as a large concrete culvert, utilised as a plant holder, which ties to the concrete texture on the walls.

The courtyard entrance has chilled inner-city vibes, with bicycles hanging up on brickwork beside cascading plants and a cheeky 1971 Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider.

All the projects are designed by the trio of owners, right down to the furniture they have specifically manufactured. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to learn that they have no background in design.

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Alex was once a barrister in Ireland, but on a trip to Rio de Janeiro he became rather intoxicated by the “cultural richness” of the country and decided to stay. He then met the two Christchurch lads at the Rio Rugby Club: Michael, a fifth-generation art dealer, and Tom, a professional rugby player. They were all looking for new opportunities, and when Michael and Tom talked about the container development they had in mind before the February 22, 2011 Christchurch earthquake scuppered their plans, they realised there was a shared synergy to create temporary buildings.

“We took an existing system and turned it into a giant Meccano system that would be the bones of any kind of architectural building,” says Alex.

After supplying the semi-permanent installations for use at events, mining camps and the like, it was time to adapt the system for permanent installations. For that, they needed somewhere to build a prototype, and post-quake Christchurch beckoned.

The central city workforce was about 50,000 pre-quake. After the heart of the city was cordoned off, it left many working from home or trying to find office space in the outer suburbs.

There was, says Alex, a need for systems that could build things quickly, affordably and with a beautiful aesthetic. So they went on their first treasure
hunt and found a building in Bernard Street, Addington.

Img 2675“Addington at that stage was a part of town really emerging in the aftermath as a business centre. So, we found an old warehouse building and, inside the building, we built a little small village using our modular construction system,” he says.

It proved popular, and not just because of the earthquake. Globally, the way people were working was changing, says Alex.

“I have a sense that technology, while it is making us in some ways more connected, is making us more isolated. This is combined with the death of the town square, in a way, and all the issues around online shopping, so there are fewer places where people find themselves getting together and walking side by side,” he says.

“These kind of environments [workspaces] in my view are a new form of the town square. I think that we tapped into that latent desire.”

While they were constructing Addington, the same change in workplaces was happening in New York and London.

“A movement was starting in the way that people were working that was driven by this need for more flexibility and the need for community,” he says.

But Christchurch was the trendsetter, Alex grins.

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After Addington came three Qb Studios in Auckland, and the Southwark factory project. And their latest project? Boutique office studios, with street-front retail and hospitality in Merivale, Papanui Rd that are due to open later this year.

Anyone who starts a project knows that fear comes knocking. So, how did the trio, who came up with the idea while playing rugby together, manage to counter the fear once the after-match beer had worn off?

Alex is quiet for a moment before he replies.

“I think fear is really healthy. Fear in some ways is a gateway, and there is an intelligence in it. I think it is always important to listen to it because any step into the unknown comes with fear. But sometimes you have to step into the unknown anyway.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, he says. There was a lot on the line with the first Addington project – everything they owned.

“It feels good to transcend the fear. We often have decisions to make about new projects. Sometimes the intelligence of that fear tells us to stop. And sometimes you have to learn to balance it right – when to step into the fear, beyond it, and when to listen to it.”

*This article appeared in February edition of Style

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