Open air life suits high-rise cleaner
DAILY GRIND Pete Howcroft admits he’s not a huge fan of heights, but it hasn’t stopped him climbing to the top of the high-rise window cleaning industry. Reporter Jess Lee talks to him about abseiling down skyscrapers for a living.
News crews were there to capture the moment Pete Howcroft and his window-cleaning team first abseiled over the side of a high-rise building.
It may not be breaking news anymore but the sight still makes people stop and stare decades later.
His Newton-based team now tackles Auckland skyscrapers up to 40 storeys high.
It’s a surreal feeling hanging off the edge of a building, Howcroft says.
‘‘The very first building that I ever worked on, hearing all of the noises of the traffic below – it felt really strange.
‘‘I’ll be honest I don’t consider myself good at heights but abseiling down the first time was really exhilarating.’’
The 57-year-old has built his company Off The Ledge from the ground up.
He spent his early 20s at the beach chasing waves rather than a career, before finally swapping the surf for a squeegee at the age of 24.
A small start-up business cleaning shopfronts and bungalow windows in Wellington gave Howcroft his first break in the industry.
He eventually sold up in search of taller and more challenging pastures.
But Howcroft says that safety standards in the high-rise windowcleaning world were not as stringently enforced in the 1980s as they are now.
‘‘We had some quite stunning near-misses back in the day. If there was a ledge you would grab your bucket, open a window and jump out onto it – no matter how narrow or slippery it was,’’ he says.
‘‘Sometimes there were no bolts to clip onto so you’d hold onto a window while walking around the outside hoping not to die – it was like the equivalent of free climbing.’’
When Howcroft spotted a photo of a man abseiling down a building in an American magazine in the late 1980s he was hooked on the idea. It transformed his business overnight.
‘‘We had three days of quite sketchy training and had to learn from a series of close encounters.’’
High-rise windowcleaners must identify potential hazards that could cut their ropes, as well as faulty structural anchors and strong wind currents.
the is so whole well- regulated and controlled that there’s no reason for any accidents to happen,’’ Howcroft says.
He eventually sold up the Wellington business and moved to Auckland.
Auckland’s calmer weather makes for better working conditions than the capital but it’s still no easy feat.
The two towers at 205 Queen St, standing at 17 and 22 storeys high, get strong wind currents even on a calm day.
‘‘You can get halfway down and you feel like you’ve abseiled into some sort of desert storm.’’
The city’s historic architecture makes for a more interesting day at the office than modern skyscrapers, Howcroft says.
‘‘We’ve grown to love the very old, turn-of-thecentury architecture because there’s such a trick to getting around and it’s like problemsolving – it’s a lot of fun.
‘‘Usually the big 30-storey towers are quite boring because it’s all very routine.’’
Despite the job’s challenges Howcroft would never want to swap swinging in the open air for a job inside an office tower.
High life: Pete Howcroft was one of the first to start highrise abseiling window-cleaning in New Zealand.
Tall order: A worker from Pete Howcroft’s Auckland highrise abseil services company Off The Ledge gets on with the job.