St Hildas Anglican Church Island Bay outside

St Hilda's Anglican Church, Island Bay


Nick Officer / First Light Studio

3. Commercial & public building design award

Photographed by: 
David Hensel

Blending heritage construction with new timber gothic innovation

In 2017 St Hilda’s Anglican Church in Island Bay received a one-year ultimatum from Wellington City Council to earthquake strengthen their existing brick facade or face closure. A healthy church with a lively congregation, St Hilda chose not to close but to continue on, using an all timber solution to keep their church alive. The existing church, designed by renown gothic architect Frederick de Jersey Clere in 1910 had a series of gothic timber arches framing the building. Recognizing the importance of a larger congregation space and revitalising the street-front connection with the community, the parish chose to remove the earthquake-prone elements of the brick façade. They employed First Light Studio to turn this cold, loud and glaring space into a new warm, light-filled, welcoming space.

First Light Studio chose to supplement the original dark timber gothic arches of Clere with a new timber gothic of our modern age, suitable for taking St Hilda into their next century. The design extends the existing weatherboard sides of the church towards the footpath using rough sawn treated pine to imitate the band sawn native weatherboards. Two tall traditional timber framed nib walls shelter the full-height glazing and a golden tessellating veil. The anodised aluminium veil is adorned with a pattern that was developed during collaborative workshops with the congregation to represent the history, future, people, and essence of Island Bay and the church. The key structural feature though is the new timber gothic arches.

Using Pinus radiata glulam timber portals for the structural elements in the new extension was a natural choice. They are a modern and minimalist expression of the existing jarrah trusses in the nave of the church, while also staying true to New Zealand’s historic use of natural materials. The curving portal frames add beauty, quality, and warmth to create an inviting environment for both the congregation and the surrounding community. Rather than a steel portal that would clash with the original design, the new arches effortlessly form a stable structure, joined together at roof level. They are linked to 6 LVL columns at the front that split the facade into five glazed sections, each also supporting the gold screen which is suspended in front of them. The new space is in tune with the sun's path with shadows moving across the floor and walls as the sun sets over the hills, enabling the gothic interplay of curves and shapes to play out to the congregation both inside and out.

Existing elements were re-used where possible; a set of beautiful Jarrah doors were removed prior to demolition and reinstalled after some much needed reparations using recycled jarrah from the church. A matching set of new timber gothic doors was also created opposite, across the nave. St Hilda is once again reborn and the new timber gothic has given this gracious old lady a much needed new approach to life.