Building the Eyebright Building
It’s fourteen years since my irrepressible friend, Tony Robinson drove in the first peg to mark the site for the Eyebright building. I didn’t have a clue what lay ahead. I had an engineer's report advising ‘Do not attempt to manage this project on your own’, but my friend Ted said ‘If you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life’.
‘Undercapitalised’ is an understatement. Recklessness, bravado, and necessity played their part in my decision to disregard the engineer. I was strangely calm about the daunting project ahead. It seems to me that you have plenty to lose, you stress, but if you have very little to lose you don’t. Adrienne, my partner at the time, and myself, had absurdly meagre resources to be contemplating the project as big as we intended. We would, however, bear the burden of justifying the faith of those who backed us; family of course but also Tony Cadigan, the assistant manager at the Nelson Building Society. We fell outside normal lending guide lines, but on the strength of our determination, rather than our reality he convinced his board to back us. What followed was a series of miracles.
In the winter of 2002 Tony Robinson put in front of me a call-for-tenders that appeared in the Nelson Mail. It was for the material for a still standing truck canopy at Port Nelson to be sold in two lots. Tendering, transporting, and reassembling the huge components was, for me, too daunting. But Tony persisted saying just put in a low tender. So I did: $27,000, for lot one, the newer and smaller section of the canopy. Disassembly was done by Coman Construction (included in the tender), and they did a fine job. Soon all the parts in perfect order were neatly stacked awaiting removal: steel arches, roofing iron, nuts and bolts, and timber. I was given ‘expert’ advice not to undo the bolt at the peak of the arches. I could see no reason why, so I numbered and marked the junctions with a felt pen, undid the nuts and slipped out the bolts. Even with the arches in halves, it was exciting trundling along Rocks Road in the big ‘Lift and Shift’ truck with a flashing escort vehicle in front. Had I left the arches in one piece we would have had to transport in the dead of night with escort vehicles in front and behind. The dread and excitement would have been almost unbearable.
Everything would lie on the ground next to the walnut tree for almost a year, while we worked out how to make the new building, get the necessary consents, and plead for finance. My arches, timber purlins (the bits that go between the arches and to which the roof was attached) and roofing iron came with a number of huge sodium vapour lamps for which I had no use. Lincoln McGaviston, a timber merchant in Motueka had purchased lot two. Both our lots came with purlins, but Lincoln didn’t require his. He did, however, want my lamps. We did a straight swap, and that gave me all the timber I required to do the framing for the walls.
I had a few more arches than I need, and Ted wanted them for a shed he was building. Ted had a crane, a friend who could drive it, a cherry picker, a soil auger and unfailing enthusiasm. I swapped arches for the use of his gear. His encouragement was free.
Without Ted’s crane and cherry picker, the costs of that gear would be crippling. Most of the time it was idle, but if I had to hire it, I would either be paying as long as the equipment was on site or be rushed to return it.
We used Ted’s crane to manoeuvre the halves of the arches into position to be reunited. They married up perfectly, and I simply popped the bolts back in place. Valuable lesson: ‘Listen to advice, but make up your own mind’.
I didn’t have the skill, experience or any sort of ticket to operate the crane but, with a quick lesson, could drive the cherry picker. It was better than three men with ladders and lot less hassle. With the cherry picker, another friend, Ian Blackman, and I installed all the purlins.
A fundamental rule with the cherry picker was: Always retract the bucket when repositioning the truck’. If you turn the truck with the bucket extended, the bucket swings in an ark with the speed of a Maori Poi. I will carry to my grave a memory that makes me shudder every time. With the arches all in place there were 22 immovable steel pillars around the perimeter of the concrete slab. Once I forgot to retract the bucket when relocating the truck. I didn’t think anything of it until I’d done it. Ian told me that the bucket came within a hairs breadth of smashing itself on one of the pillars.
The truck canopy was a roof, with no walls, standing five meters high at the edges. We sunk the legs of the arches 1.4 meters into the ground, hence the walls of Eyebright are 3.6 high. Easy to say, and in hindsight straightforward to do, but with each hole needing to be bored with a big auger in the right place, and each arch needing to be lifted with a crane and the placement of the legs in the holes needing to be adjusted just right, by a man (me) with only a modicum of practical skills
jTony Robinson and I marking out the site of the new Eyebright building
Ian and I worked through to mid June. Then with a slightly larger gang I took charge of building the veranda. From then on, however, we would require qualified builders and plenty of them. This was 2003, and a building boom had ignited. A year earlier there had been plenty of builders, but now their order books were full. The opening date was looming, and with the manpower we had, we would still be working in the winter of 2004.
Adrienne had very good friends in Mike and Del Curtis who owned a house building company. I remember well our meeting with them at the Grape Escape Cafe, where Mike said he would pull his builders from their other projects and get them onto the Eyebright job. Other builders were also brought in, also John Maxwell Electrical, Days Plumbing, Terry Westley Drainlaying, and Contour Roofing. Had I had time to reflect, the days of Ian and I contentedly working together would be but a pleasant memory, but of course I didn’t have time to reflect. Every morning I would get up at 5:30, go to my office, write down the things I had to remember, then have my breakfast and get down to the site
The first Arch Hanging from Ted's Crane
Now the project was thundering ahead with turf flying and best thing that Adrienne and I could do was focus on making sure it was headed in the right direction.
Inspired ideas, and good fortune trod on each other’s heels as the opening day drew nigh. When we learnt that we would need to apply three coats of expensive fire retardant paint to the MDF we intended to use for lining, Adrienne made the snap decision to use prepainted corrugated iron. I’ll take credit for high vents on the South side. My theory being that on a typical summers day, the cool sea breeze would enter at the front door, rise through the shop and exit through the high vent. This is indeed what happens.
John Maxwell had an employee called Mike who called me down at 9:30 one evening to reconsider the height of the lights. I had made the decision to position them at the same height as the ones at the old Eyebright at The Grape Escape. Mike could see that this was a mistake. The much bigger area called for everything to be higher. Not doing so would have been oppressive in the extreme. Thank goodness for tradesmen with gumption.
When it was all done we had a bit of a celebratory gathering with most of the tradies. I tried make a profound speech but choked up with emotion.
The stock came down the road. We hung the dried flowers. The first customer to walk in was a lady called Wendy. She said it was wonderful.
Framing for the Veranda in Place