Element 17

The appeal of Christchurch - why stay?

That is the question on many people's lips when they encounter a young professional, carving out a career for themselves in post-quake Christchurch.


Etching out any sort of existence in a city decimated by earthquakes is not something many people would make a conscious decision to do – particularly when those very people are only starting out in their chosen careers.

That, however, is not the case for the young team at Element 17, a commercial, retail and hospitality design firm tucked away in an office within the city’s four avenues.

Emma Henderson, Rita Schooley and Michel Holleman have not only made lives for themselves in Christchurch, and launched their developing careers, they have made the decision to move to Christchurch from other towns and cities.

In a city where people lost family and friends, others homes and many, jobs, it is not hard to lose sight of the Garden City’s appeal.

But for 21-year-old Emma, 26-year-old Rita and 32-year-old Michel, it wasn’t the appeal of pre-quake Christchurch that drew them to the city – surprisingly enough they had never borne witness to its aesthetics before the devastating earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011.

In Emma’s case, it was the lure of the Design and Arts College that enticed her to move from Timaru to the bright lights of Christchurch. Moving with her partner, Emma began studying interior design and never looked back.

“I came here with the ambition to start a career in interior design, and at the same time I wanted to help the city get back on its feet,” she says. “I was quite lucky with my studies, we did a lot of drawing and had time with other design agencies, so we got an insight into working with clients and customers.”

Working with Element 17 for the better part of 10 months, Emma says her first job out of study suits her well, particularly the busy nature of the work.

“We’re constantly going, some weeks it’s absolutely crazy but it’s a fun environment to be in, there are some very cool people we get to interact with.”

For Rita, on the other hand, it was the vast array of opportunities that struck a chord.

Her penchant for design first peaked in high school and it was then she knew she had to make the move to Wellington to study at Massey University.

It took four years of hard work but Rita completed a Bachelor of Design majoring in Spatial Design with Honours. Then four years ago, the young designer made the decision to move to Christchurch.

“I suppose everything was ahead of me in Christchurch, I wasn’t really sure if I was into architecture so I came here and started doing architectural design for a couple of years. But now I have moved into commercial interiors, which is a bit more me,” she says.

“Christchurch is just a cool place to live. In Hamilton, everyone moves to Auckland and I just like how Christchurch is a bit more laid back and friendly. But lots of people said to me, ‘are you crazy? It shakes down there!”.

Working at Element 17 for just over a year, Rita says the fast-paced environment, peppered with an element of fun, suits her.

Like many of her counterparts, it’s the allure of the finished project that elicits the most excitement. “I think that is what keeps you going in your project, you can’t wait to see it down the road’.”

As for trends in the city – Rita acknowledges there is still an abundance of exposed steel and other raw materials – she is predicting a slight change of direction, towards a more sophisticated look.

“It’s a bit more refined, that is what it seems to be going forward but we’re not quite there yet. As everyone knows, the industrial look is everywhere but this is just a bit more of a step forward.”

Living a little further out than Timaru or Hamilton – 18,000 kilometres further in fact – Michel’s journey to Christchurch was somewhat unintentional.

Born and raised in the Netherlands, Michel moved to New Zealand three years ago – the result of an extended O.E.

Prior to the move, he obtained a Diploma in Building and Construction and a Bachelor of Construction (Construction Management) and worked as a junior project manager, aiding more senior project managers on all sorts of jobs, from theatres and cinemas to large commercial buildings.

Then, when travel beckoned Michel decided to move to New Zealand and spend a year working and exploring. However, the pull of the Kiwi landscape proved too strong and Michel decided to make New Zealand his home. The South Island was a no-brainer, he said, and the nature of his qualifications made him a prime candidate for working in Christchurch.

“It was like I was being pushed to Christchurch because of my construction degree and that was a good choice for me,” he says.

Originally Michel worked for Hawkins and was involved in the Canterbury Recovery Project but the progression of his career saw him a land a different sort of role at Element 17, one he much prefers.

As a project manager, Michel’s job sees him liaising with clients and contractors, visiting sites and keeping an eye on budgets, and is not too dissimilar to the ways things work back in the Netherlands. “The technical language is different, and you have to adapt to that but the ideas an processes are the same,” he explains. “I’m more of a jack of all trades than a master of one, so this role suits me well.”

While there are many people that have made the decision to move to Christchurch post-quake, there are many more than have stayed in the city and forged ahead. One of those people is Steve Rosling, owner of Element 17.

With more than 15 years’ experience in the design business Steve has seen a thing or two; from trends and fads coming and going, to buildings going up and subsequently, falling down. But in the aftermath of the earthquakes comes a chance that designers could only hope for – the chance to redesign a city from the ground up.

Steve’s speciality – commercial office fit outs – has seen a raft of changes in the last five to 10 years, but is finally coming out of the aptly named “industrial age”. What Cantabrian’s are now witnessing is an inclination towards a more streamlined, sophisticated approach, Steve says.

“We’re kind of coming out of that age, which was all about recycling and reusing and people in the office environment are now looking for more of a craftsmanship aspect.”

Not only is the look of the city changing, but more thought is going into what goes on inside its buildings.

“There’s a lot of thought going into the culture of business, timeout areas and touchdown zones and that sort of thing, as well as energy efficiency too.”


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