Topic: Quickbuild at Bethlehem College by Jeannette Knudsen

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A Jeannette Knudsen entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Looking strange? see an archived version here

Graham Preston stood looking out into the early evening light, tears running down his face.  It was 7.30pm on Friday 11th March 1988, the end of the second day of the first Bethlehem College QuickBuild.  The steady rain of Cyclone Bola stopped for a while and a gentle mist settled over the site of the half-completed A Block.  Someone turned the building lights on to enable the volunteers to continue for another hour and the lights glimmered in the twilight haze. The sound of hammers and machines broke the silence, speaking of the commitment and dedication of the workers. 

Graham’s mind flicked back over the last two years – the first public meeting about the idea of a private school in November 1985, the formation of the Christian Education Trust, the buying of the Elder Lane property and the sale of the Glade Motor Camp in 1987, providing capital for the purchase, the hours of meetings, his resignation from his safe position at Omanu School so that he could become the new principal.  A worker across the building site called out his name and he was brought back to the present, wiping away his tears of emotion.

The QuickBuild idea came from Bob Wakelin, one of the trustees.  He had been working in his business with a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses and his clients required acoustical design for their auditoriums.  Their representative was the project manager for their QuickBuild operations, and from him, Bob developed a keen interest in the QuickBuild concept.

Concerned about the cost of the college’s planned first classroom block, he was convinced he could do it much cheaper as a QuickBuild. Though his expertise was in the narrower field of acoustics, he was confident he could carry through the project.  He asked the trust for time to explore an alternative and in his mind, envisaged a QuickBuild.

Time was of the essence. 

The QuickBuild was best done during the daylight saving summer period and it was already November with four months remaining of that summer.  Bob needed to persuade trustees to accept the viability of the QuickBuild idea.  His Jehovah’s Witness friend had an idea: he offered to allow trustees to observe the current Kingdom Hall QuickBuild in Gisborne. 

As a result, several carloads of people from Tauranga travelled to Gisborne for the Friday and Saturday venture, their aim to take a crash course in QuickBuild management.  They watched in amazement as one hundred volunteers erected the church building in one weekend.  Hospitable and encouraging, the JWs built the Tauranga observers a platform from where they viewed and videoed the activity and they provided them with food and drinks.  The plan worked and the QuickBuild concept was adopted.

By January 1988 preliminary sketches of Stage I of the master plan, comprising the H-shaped block for the first classrooms, the temporary administration and the underground services, were ratified by the trust and a building permit was applied for from the council.  Authority to order building materials was given. 

Bob and Prue Wakelin were living temporarily in the downstairs flat below Graham and Vicky Preston’s home, having moved from west Auckland to Mount Maunganui.  It allowed the men to spend many hours together working on the QuickBuild planning.  The days and weeks became exceedingly busy.  Other trustees and supporters joined them, working out the details of the building plans.  They quantified resources and prioritised them in a timetable of usage; they placed advertisements in local newspapers for volunteer workers and approached businesses for sponsorship or donated materials; they met the requirements of town planning and arranged the catering for the volunteers; they secured voluntary services in all the trades and appointed leading hands in each trade. 

Graham visited a number of local churches seeking the support of volunteers.

Some of the work was done prior to the QuickBuild, like the laying of the concrete slab, which was too large to be managed as part of the QuickBuild.  Preparation of the frame pre-cutting and preliminary drainage work was also carried out.  The tongue-and-groove timber for the inside walls was fortuitously pre-varnished ahead of time; had they been left to the weekend and become wet with the inclement weather, they would have swelled, making it impossible to slot them in place.

The QuickBuild took place from Thursday 10th to Saturday 12th March 1988.  Four hundred people arrived to work on the new school, to paint, to hammer, to install plumbing, to plaster, to lay blocks and bricks, to plant trees, to lay electric cables, to provide catering, and to do the multitude of other necessary tasks.  An arena-sized marquee accommodated food and drinks for the workers as well as shelter for painting and varnishing. 

Those with building skills were organised into four teams to work in four sections of the building, each team under the leadership of an overseer. Others did the painting, carrying, cleaning up, cobblestone laying, planting and general labouring.   The builders had to work at close quarters with each other, materials, wires and tools everywhere; it was amazing that they completed so much of the work. Over the three days 17,000 grey bricks and 2,200 cobblestones were laid.

Every participant remembered the weather, with steady rain falling for most of the three days.  Yellow raincoats formed part of the landscape, creating bright dabs of colour against an otherwise dull background.  Underfoot the ground quickly turned to mud and slush.  The QuickBuild began just three days after Cyclone Bola first hit the East Coast of the North Island, bringing high winds, continual rain, swollen rivers and devastating floods. 

Although the torrential rain and strong winds that buffered the Bay of Plenty were not as severe as in the Gisborne area, where a state of emergency was declared, the storm could not fail to affect the QuickBuild.  Everyone and everything was saturated.  Progress was slow.

However, there was one benefit: the deluge created a unique atmosphere across the building site.  Every worker felt they were pitted against the elements, united to get the task completed, whatever the odds.  Participants witnessed to an intangible and peaceful dimension in the atmosphere, evidence, they believed, of God’s blessing on the project.  That ninety five percent of the work on A Block was accomplished by the end of the three days in spite of the weather was a tribute to the faithfulness and perseverance of the volunteers. 

Devotions over a loud speaker system, setting the tone for the day, were taken each morning by Eric Chambers who came from Wellington to lend his encouragement to the project. A spirit of unity and co-operation with a high degree of community interest and involvement pervaded the building site. 

The QuickBuild featured on national television news with volunteers singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’ The Bay of Plenty Times took photo shots every hour to demonstrate the progress and printed selected images on the paper’s front page.

At mid-afternoon on Saturday, the sun came out and for a while it became a beautiful late summer day, normal for the Bay of Plenty in March.  Graham called everyone together and suggested they stop and have the barbeque that had been promised, for progress was beyond expectation under the conditions.  The response was unanimous – the workers had not come to do a half-finished job, and back to work they went.  The last team to leave the site drove out in the small hours of Sunday morning.

Everyone was invited back for the Sunday afternoon thanksgiving service.  Those who had been on security duty and others tidied up the site and cleaned through the building, with its new carpets and curtains in place.  As it was fine weather, they decided to hold the service outside, setting up the seating and furniture accordingly.  Then just after lunch, the heavens opened again and the rain bucketed down, resulting in the service being held inside the new building on the new carpet, in spite of wet and muddy shoes.  Several hundred people arrived to give thanks and sing, and Eric Chambers brought the afternoon to a conclusion with words of encouragement. 

It had been an exhilarating and euphoric few days that would become part of the early story of Bethlehem College, Tauranga’s first non-denominational Christian school.

This page was archived at perma cc February 2017


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Quickbuild at Bethlehem College by Jeannette Knudsen


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Quickbuild at Bethlehem College by Jeannette Knudsen by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License