Written by Vicki Holder
Along with all their other work at peak demand, the storms have assured business is booming for Auckland Stonemasons. Ever since they built Auckland’s Tamaki Drive in the 1920s, the company has continued to accrue a rock solid legacy of stone work including some of the biggest jobs in New Zealand - Mount Cook’s Hermitage, commercial walls, bridges, monuments, pathways and buildings. It has never abated.
And master stonemason, Len Lavas predicts Auckland will see a lot more stone around Auckland, especially on the waterfront as the frequency and brutality of such storms batters the New Zealand coastline.
“A lot of the old walls have been failing,” he says. “We’ve completed a large amount of seawall maintenance for the Council after the storms. Since Christmas, we’ve done 12 since and we have consents into Council for around 10 more.”
Many new walls have been created to hold back the relentless might of the sea. The old ones are being well-maintained to halt nature’s fury. Some are the same walls Len’s grandfather Ivan Lavas built way back in the 1920s.
After World War 1, like most people in his Korcula Island village in Croatia, Ivan was suffering from near starvation. Desperate for a brighter new life, he sought out New Zealand as the answer to his dreams. Though still young, Ivan was already a seasoned stonemason.
“He left school when he was 12 but couldn’t start his apprenticeship until he was 14. He then had to work for no payment for six months to make sure he was up to it.” In reality, there was never any question about the career ahead of him.
“For hundreds of years, .....everyone in the village was a stonemason, including my grandmother’s father, because the only construction material available was stone.”
In 1926, Ivan joined relations who migrated to New Zealand and trekked north to dig for kauri gum. He also trapped rabbits and possums. But in the post war boom, he soon realised he could make a lot more money breaking rocks in the quarry as a stonemason.
He established Auckland Stonemasons in 1927 and began making sea walls in places like Puketutu Island for Sir Henry Kelliher. He built all the stone retaining walls for Fletchers including a drystone corner of Fletcher’s head office, a three-storey building along Great South Road that’s remarkably still standing. Then there was a lot of work for Stevensons, the concrete people. Ivan was still working part-time up until the age of 85 years.
Now, one of the biggest stonemason businesses in New Zealand, the Lavas family has generations of experience and knowledge to call on. They’ve completed more council, commercial and private work in the upper North Island in the past 75 years than any other stonemasonry company.
Asked about the reason for their success, Len says the difference between Stonemasons and other companies is quality. “We are proper stonemasons. Around 70% of walls built in Auckland are rubbish, guaranteed to fall down,” cautions Len.
“Many don’t have the right mix of sand and cement in the mortar. They don’t put the foundations in properly. We teach our tradesmen correctly and ensure strict quality control. We’ve trained hundreds over the years. The good ones generally stay working for us.”
Unlike in other regions of New Zealand, when working locally, they no longer source their stone from local Auckland quarries. Health & Safety has put paid to that. So, they have turned to excavations, extracting the rock available when contractors are digging apartment buildings or carparks and pipe lines.
“The thing is,” adds Len, “we’ve worked in quarries all our lives and never had an accident. Now they say, they’re too dangerous,” he shakes his head. Fortunately, having accumulated the largest stockpile of all types of native Auckland stone in New Zealand, they can match existing stone work. Basalt, granite, bluestone, limestone – they have tonnes of it.
Circumstances may have changed but the age-old construction methods have remained the same. “The walls are built on an angle so they can only fall into themselves in a seabed which doesn’t generally move much. It’s shaped like a pyramid so it can’t fall down. If it falls, it falls into itself.
“To stop erosion,” explains Len, “you make a gravity wall where you change the structure of the ground, turning clay into rock. Gravity is the most powerful force known to man.”
Some of Auckland’s walls are being made stronger than ever before, like the seawall at the bottom of Ngapipi Road in Orakei which was moved 10 metres out into the sea and is now a colossal 10 metres thick to withstand the mightiest of pressure.
Teams from Auckland Stonemasons are collaborating with Councils around the country to repair and rebuild seawalls to protect and retain pathways for many years to come. So, when the storms come in and you live by the coast, it’s likely you have Auckland Stonemasons to thank for keeping your home dry.