Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Alun Larsen

By Jennifer Dann

Building the $35 million ASB Waterfront Theatre has been the biggest challenge yet for Auckland's 'Mr Theatre' Alun Larsen. Despite setbacks including contaminated soil, failed piles and substandard concrete, the Hawkins project manager has delivered on time and in budget.
Alun Larsen says it's nice to see a project like the ASB Waterfront Theatre to completion as it means so much to so many people. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Alun Larsen says it's nice to see a project like the ASB Waterfront Theatre to completion as it means so much to so many people. Photo / Jason Oxenham

1 Why do they call you 'Mr Theatre'?

This is the third theatre I've done in Auckland. I redeveloped the Aotea Centre's huge 2300-seat ASB Theatre and built a small 300-seat theatre at the Manukau Institute of Technology. The ASB Waterfront Theatre is mid-sized with 668 seats and fills a gap left when the Maidment Theatre burnt down.

2 Was it a challenge to build within the $35 million budget?

When we started the job for Auckland Theatre Company two years ago we had to take out a lot of nice-to-have but non-essential stuff to get to a figure they could proceed with. During the build they raised more money so we were able to feed the nice-to-haves back in like a spiral staircase worth $220,000, plus fittings and fixtures like TV screens in the dressing rooms so the actors can see what's happening on stage.

3 Is this your most challenging build in technical terms?

Yes. I've never done a job with so much external interest and that's because it's a genuinely interesting building. We asked Beca and BGT if any of their engineers wanted to come and have a look and all their staff said yes. People especially like seeing what happens behind the scenes - where the actors get changed, how they get up on stage. The trapdoor room is the coolest part of the building. There are 24 trapdoors in the stage floor with hydraulics to lift grand pianos and even a car on stage if needed.

4 Did you get held up by any unexpected delays?

We found contamination in the ground known as 'blue billy' which contains low levels of cyanide so we had to cordon off the site and everyone coming on and off had to wear full protective gear. It's quite a lengthy process to actually get it out of the ground, put clean fill on top and dig your foundations through so that set us back about three weeks.

5 Where did the contamination come from?

All the foreshore is reclaimed land that was used as landfill. The blue billy came from the old gas works at Victoria Park. When they'd clean them out they'd chuck the rubbish in the landfill. Hawkins had also found a patch at Halsey St so after we demolished the old Moana Pacific Fisheries building we got some consultants on site to take samples.

6 How did you make up the lost time?

I was chatting with the boys in the smoko shed one day and we came up with the idea of pre-building the roof in the carpark across the road. It's a special roof with a cement sheet to dampen acoustics. Each section weighed 20 tons so we had to close the road and bring in the second biggest crane in New Zealand to lift the three sections into place. We also had to stop work when one of the piles from the previous building failed. A batch of sub-standard concrete set us back a few weeks. We had to tear down internal walls where it had been used as fill for blockwork.

7 Does the stress get to you sometimes?

Not really, I'm a pretty cool customer. I've been doing it a lot of years now. I've always followed the advice of my first mentor who said, "Don't put your head down, pick it up and look for a solution - it's always there somewhere." Hawkins has a breadth and depth of experience so if you've got an issue you can just pick up the phone and there's a myriad of people you can call on.

8 Did you always want to build theatres?

No I started out in Wales doing civil engineering which is roads and bridges and then a mixed bag of things like social housing. I fell into theatres after doing a couple of multiplex cinemas in the UK which are similar in that acoustics are the number one consideration. You need much bigger air conditioning ducts because the theatre has to be very quiet. Everything we do has to be checked acoustically. The last thing you want to do is screw up a theatre's performance.

9 Why did you decide to move to New Zealand 12 years ago?

To spend more time with my family. I spent about five years working away from home Monday to Friday while our children were young. My wife, who was working full-time and studying, said "We can't carry on like this." So we decided to move abroad. We've always lived by the sea so we went for a walk along the beach at Browns Bay and said, "Yeah, this'll do." I love it here. I do a lot of fishing and my wife and I love going to the theatre.

10 What next for you?

I don't know, they've given me six weeks off so I'll find out when I get back from the UK. There's probably a shopping centre or something for me to build. That's the thing about construction, we never do the same thing twice. We reinvent the wheel just about every time but that's what makes it exciting. I love having something tangible at the end too.

11 How do you think Auckland's construction sector is placed to address the housing crisis?

The next couple of years are going to be challenging. The supply chain is really stretched and it's going to get worse. Lead times for locally made materials like pre-cast panels have leapt from a two-month wait to 10 months and with big jobs like the Convention Centre and Downtown coming up, demand's going to outstrip supply.

12 Which of your career achievements are you most proud of and why?

A little building in my hometown of Milford Haven. It wasn't much but it was the first I oversaw from start to finish. I actually struggled to hand the keys over - it's hard when you've built something from nothing and nurtured it to completion. I wouldn't get as emotionally invested in an office block as I do in something like this theatre because it's so special to so many people. The architect Gordon Moller and Auckland Theatre Company manager Lester McGrath have worked on this for 15 years and seen it finally come to fruition.

• ASB Waterfront Theatre's public open day is on 24 September 10am-2pm, 138 Halsey St, Wynyard Quarter. The first show, Billy Elliot The Musical, begins 7 October atc.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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