Ian Jack

Ian Jack
Ian Jack


Wellington born, he has made Nelson his home since 1974, stamping his mark on the Top of the South’s commercial, residential and industrial architecture.


Schoolboy holidays at Tahunanui were architect Ian Jack’s first experience of Nelson and the Tasman region and all it has to offer. When the time came he had no hesitation in making it home, although not before he’d enjoyed several years seeing a fair amount of the world.

Born in Wellington, he also grew up there, attending firstly Karori School, then Scots College. While he enjoyed school “I wasn’t the best student” – it was to a large extent Ian’s after-school and holiday activities that shaped the man he became.

“My father was a supplier of woodworking tools and I was fortunate that he allowed me to blunt his chisels making trolleys and the like. I was always interested in building. While still at school I built a canoe for instance and successfully took it down the Wanganui River.”

From his father Rob, Ian developed a love of wood, construction, a hard work ethic and also a love of fishing. From his Scottish mother Kathleen’s creative side of the family he inherited some ability at art.

Family life for the Jacks was not always easy. Dad Rob became disabled from an early age so he was not able to be involved in physical activities but “he was very determined and always found a way to do what he wanted”, recalls Ian. His father’s business started with sharpening saws. “He employed a saw doctor and a man with a bike who would pick up the saws in the morning then deliver them back sharpened in the afternoon.” From small beginnings W & R Jack Ltd (aka Jacks) in Wellington grew to be the largest woodworking machinery supplier in New Zealand.

His father spent his small leisure time fishing and boating, and in 1961 built a family bach at Lake Taupo.  The treasured memories of family holidays there later lent Ian impetus to build a bach at St Arnaud, shared with Robin and his wife Jenny and old friends from Wellington days, and then eventually his own bach in the Marlborough Sounds – “my place to relax”.

A vocational guidance evening at Scots College put architecture in the spotlight as a possible career option. “I doubted my academic ability but was encouraged by my parents to go for it”, he remembers. “A combination of being interested in making things and having some small proficiency in drawing made it a good choice.” Ian started his architecture studies at Victoria University followed by four years – 1966 to 1970 – at architecture school in Auckland, culminating in a Bachelor of Architecture degree plus some valuable lessons in life.

Auckland University then had the only School of Architecture in the country so I was forced to leave home, which was a timely change. Auckland at the time was such a vibrant place. Tim Shadbolt was in full cry at Albert Park and the city was buzzing.” Architecture school proved highly stimulating, made the more so by the regular studio visits from fully fledged architects only too happy to share knowledge with the newbies.

The big OE

“Once I graduated it was back to Wellington.  To help ease the path at university I had signed on for a cadetship with what was then the Ministry of Works. That meant I was bonded to the Ministry for four years after I obtained my degree. I lasted six months!”

Deciding the Ministry was “not the right environment for me,” Ian instead paid off his bond and went to work for the Wellington architects Gabites Beard, Alington and Edmondson. During his tenure there the firm was involved in several notable projects which Ian was also part of. “One of the partners (Bill Alington) designed the Upper Hutt Civic Centre offices and Massey University halls of residence at the time, and I was lucky to have him as a mentor.”

That was a great two years, says Ian, but by then he’d also developed the travel bug. “I was flatting with an English friend and we were both captivated by South America so off we went. We spent three months bumming our way through South America and the West Indies enroute to London.”

Backpacking at the time was still relatively new and many of the places they visited had not yet become regular tourist meccas.  “We found and hiked the Machu Picchu Trail for instance before it became known to tourists. We climbed over 14,000 ft passes, camped amongst old Inca ruins and didn’t see a single other person in four days on the trail! It was simply amazing.”

Once in London Ian found a flat and a job with a firm of architects, and met his wife-to-be Pam. “She was looking for a flatmate, and I turned up. I think I was selected from 15 applicants because I said I could fix the leaking taps.”

London in those days was “like suddenly arriving on a Monopoly board”. The excitement soon wore off however and after six to eight months wanderlust set in again so Ian approached the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and asked if they had any suitable overseas postings available.

“They did and it was in Bermuda so that’s where Pam and I headed.” The couple married in Bermuda and found “a nice little slave cottage” to rent. It was, says Ian, an idyllic lifestyle. A friendly ex-pat community, perfect climate, two good incomes and no income tax. “We managed to live on one income and saved the other.”

While Bermuda was a great lifestyle for a couple of years, Ian had always aspired to own his own architecture practice and he had always planned to do that back in New Zealand. The time was right to head back home.

Nelson beckons

Still in Bermuda, Ian wrote to architect firms in various New Zealand areas, finally accepting an offer from Nelson firm Rotman White & Hay, arriving in 1974 to the province he now calls home.

“They had a big backlog of work and I was familiar with Nelson,” he explains. “I spent many of my school holidays exploring the region. I had an uncle – Ernest Farquhar – who lived at Tahunanui and I was a regular visitor.

From those early visits Ian developed a life-long love of the  Nelson/Marlborough outdoors and associated activities, tramping in the Nelson Lakes National Park and Kahurangi mountains with friends, exploring the back country long before cycle trails were invented, and learning to appreciate what nature has gifted the Top of the South.

Despite his past architectural experience he was still “young and green and feeling my way” when he arrived in Nelson. Some of the projects he undertook were Council jobs. Among those early projects were parks and reserves amenities buildings including a pair of pavilions for Nelson’s Botanic Reserve.

“When I presented the plans to Nelson City Council I was told by one vociferous councillor that they were only fit for the rubbish bin. I decided then and there that my architecture career would long outlast his Council one.”

Nevertheless, the Council adopted the plans and the pavilions still stand today. “I’ve enjoyed a long and happy relationship with Council since then,” says Ian.

Two years after arriving in Nelson, he notched up a first for the region, building a pole house overlooking The Cut. The year was 1976, and it was his own residence; a first own home for himself, Pam and their family-to-be. Ian designed it and naturally helped build it.

Set in a new subdivision in Malcolm Place, the house had a prickly start. “The sections were $20,000 which in those days was a horrendous price. They were all overgrown with gorse and scrub. I brought a slasher and hacked my way through to the top of the cliff overlooking The Cut. Then I saw the view. I loved it. … it still inspires me every day.”

When the 1000 square metre section was still for sale six months later Ian and Pam put in a cheeky offer and bought it for $13,300. He then set about designing and building what was the first stage of their home. Two sons, several expansions and a few decades later they still enjoy living there, although Ian admits in hindsight that if he had to do it again he would make some changes.  It was intended as a 3-year stepping stone at the time. “I didn’t dream that we would still be in the house 40 years later. I didn’t do a master plan which would have been helpful.”

Standing alone

The couple’s elder son Matthew was born in 1977 while the first stage of the house was still under completion, followed by younger son Sam two years later.

Having his own home also gave Ian a space from which to set up and run his own practice. He is the founding principal of Ian Jack Architects Ltd, which is Nelson’s oldest established architectural practice operating today as Irving Smith Architects Ltd.

“I started off working from a bedroom at home and when work started to build up we bought a cottage in South Street. We did that up, then helped convince the Council to make it a heritage street.”

The practice eventually outgrew South Street too and new offices followed along with increasing staff and an increasing profile in residential, commercial and industrial architecture.

“Initially I was concentrating on residential design but then opportunities arose to become involved in commercial projects.”

One of those was the Alpine Lodge at Lake Rotoiti. From there demand grew until the practice employed 10 staff. By then Ian found himself tied up with admin work while others did the design work he so much enjoyed. Over time he took in two partners, got back to grass roots and the accolades and awards flowed in at a steady rate, both nationally and regionally.

Urban development

Back in the early 1990’s his longstanding concern over the impact of urban development on heritage led Ian to prepare (on commission) design guidelines for the Nelson City Council. His approach was to blend the preservation of existing heritage while encouraging sympathetic new development which will in the future also merit heritage status.

Still a member of the Nelson City Council urban design panel, he is also an elected fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects

Along the way his interest in art deepened, often finding a creative outlet in his design work. Many of Ian’s projects reflect his strong interest in the relationships between architecture, urban design, landscape and art. They include the foreshore redevelopment of Nelson’s Wakefield Quay and several prominent inner city buildings. The award-winning Nelson Visitor Information Centre Taha o Te Awa at Millers Acre involved a collaboration between art and architecture to form a northern city gateway and riverside precinct.

“One of the aspects I love about Nelson is the abundance of arts and crafts that are here, many examples of which have found a place in my home. Early on I got to know potters Royce McGlashen and John and Anne Crawford and designed studios for both of them.”

Art has become a family passion with Pam developing her own interest in painting with oils while Ian infuses his artistic bent into his building designs. “I’ve always been attracted to integrating art into my buildings. Art and architecture enhance one another and lift the spirit.  Wherever possible I encourage my clients to incorporate art in their projects from an early stage.”

Ongoing commitments to contextual architecture have brought Ian’s practice numerous national and regional design awards, including more recently Irving Smith Jack’s revolutionary new Arts & Media Centre at NMIT. The first of several pioneering timber buildings for the practice, it has also been the catalyst for a change in direction.

The future

In 2014 Ian retired from the firm he founded, and again went out on his own, running a small solo architectural practice, but mainly to devote more time to the company XLam NZ Ltd, established in 2011 with his brother Robin.

“About five years ago I was talking with a client who is into sustainable construction, and with Robin who still owns the firm Dad started in 1946 which imports high tech wood processing machinery from Europe. Robin knew about Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) in Austria and Germany and I became interested too.  I’ve always designed in wood; I love it as a material. XLam takes it to a whole new level.”

Simply put, CLT is made from boards glued together in layers to make very large structural building panels for floors, walls and roofs.  “It’s European technology which has been used over there for about 25 years. It’s like building with a pack of big wood cards instead of having to construct frames. The end result is a quick, precise and ultra-strong build.”

The brothers, along with substantial Australian partner Hyne Timber, have their own Nelson production factory with 25 staff in Beatty Street, while the Australians are now commissioning a second XLam factory over there to service increasing demand.

In Nelson we use locally grown radiata pine which comes in from timber mills as rough sawn boards. We measure the strength of the boards and put them through a computer controlled docking saw that cuts out bad knots and weak spots. The wood is then finger-jointed together into boards up to 15m long, put through a planer, then placed in vacuum presses in layers for gluing.  There are usually 3 or 5 layers, glued together in opposing directions for strength. After the glue has cured, panels are lifted from the presses by crane and trimmed exactly to size by a large CNC processing machine which carries an automated toolkit. Most of the equipment has been sourced from Germany by Jacks.

Ian believes XLam CLT is an important construction medium of the future, thanks to its lightness (one fifth the weight of concrete), versatility, strength and also the quickness of erection. Plusses in New Zealand include an abundant wood resource, an acute housing shortage, a need for better building quality, safety imperatives in earthquakes, and the growing importance of sustainable construction.

CLT started in Europe and is gaining momentum in UK, Canada and USA.  The government is incentivising CLT in Japan. To date though XLam is the only manufacturer of CLT in the Southern hemisphere. “In our first three years of production XLam has supplied panels for over 150 building projects, including some in Australia”.

Now Ian assists XLam with product development and provides independent construction advice from his long experience as an architect.  His is a hands-on role, pioneering the use of CLT in New Zealand, backed by his extensive knowledge of building construction and product performance.

Family time and travel

Although still leading a busy work life, Ian makes regular time for tramping, fishing and periodic travelling, along with quality family time at the Sounds bach. There are now three grandchildren to enjoy – Matthew and Jenn’s Holly (5) in Nelson, and Sam and Sarah’s Hannah (5) and Lachie (3) in Auckland. Catching up at the family bach in the Marlborough Sounds also provides an outlet for boating and fishing, and occasional overseas ventures cater for Ian and Pam’s wanderlust.

Later this year the couple are heading off to Europe for some hiking, and to visit the international architecture exhibition at the Venice Biennale.  Architecture is never far from the surface for Ian.  “It’s been a constant source of inspiration.  I feel very fortunate to have spent my working life doing something I love with people I enjoy and being paid for it.  Maybe in some small way I will leave a footprint in Nelson.  I hope so”.

Leave a Comment