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NZ's Engineering Milestones: Wellington's Beehive

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The original sketches for the Beehive, drawn in 1964 by the architect Sir Basil Spence, were not well received at the time, yet it has gone on to become one of New Zealand’s most iconic structures. Earning its name due to its round, multi-level design, it is alleged that the name was coined when Spence used Beehive-branded matches to construct a model of his plan. Known as the Executive Wing, it’s one of four buildings in the New Zealand parliamentary complex.

The Beehive was built out of the need for a more spacious, high-quality executive wing. In 1953, Prime Minister Sid Holland described the main parliament building as a “collection of dog boxes,” and urged the construction of a new building. The Holyoake cabinet commissioned Spence to design the building in 1962. Despite some less than positive reactions when the design was agreed upon in Parliament, the construction moved forward. New Zealand government architect Fergus Sheppard was given the job of turning Spence’s design into workable plans. Construction of the Beehive began in 1969, with excavations for a basement car park, a civil defence complex and a swimming pool. It is ten storeys (72 meters) high and has four floors below ground level. The project cost is estimated at NZ$70 million.

The Ministry of Works were responsible for the structural design of the building which accounts for New Zealand’s location and vulnerability to earthquakes. The city is near the Wellington fault which has not shifted for 350 years, creating a 10-50% likelihood that there would be a large earthquake within the life of this building.  As the second newest building in the Parliamentary complex, and unlike the two older buildings, the Beehive was built balanced on 417 Robinson bearings to allow the structure to move independently of its foundations in the event of a quake.

Robinson bearings are comprised of layers of steel and rubber with a lead core, allowing the building to move up to 30cm in relation to its foundations.  The lead core is employed as, under pressure, it softens, enabling it to absorb more energy. Robinson bearings reduce the damage to buildings as they prevent the ground movements from being as effectively transferred to the aboveground structure. In 1989, The New Zealand government approved refurbishment of Parliament House and Parliament Library, the two older buildings, to protect them from earthquakes by installing these bearings into their foundations. 

With its rugged, detailed appearance, the Beehive is a great example of Brutalist architecture and, despite is chequered initial reception, has become well-known in New Zealand, even featuring on the NZ$20 banknote. The building’s status is not solely due to its appearance but also due to the challenges which the construction faced. Having to account for the threat of earthquakes to the building, the Beehive was constructed on Robinson bearings to reduce the risk to the building in the event of an earthquake. Whether you love it or loathe it, the Beehive is certainly a national landmark – and due to its skilful construction, it’s here to stay too.

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