The past is the new future for housing

Māori-centric architecture, including modular homes and community living, could provide the answers the country is looking for in housing.

Architect Nicholas Dalton is tickled by a t-shirt slogan – ‘the past is the new future’. It sums up the work he is doing, reaching into his Māori heritage to produce the homes New Zealand needs right now – fast, well built, sustainable, and with people, not cars, at their heart.

Māori urban design isn’t just about buildings with carvings stuck on the front. It’s a new (old) way of thinking, valuing four key concepts – tangata, the people; whenua, the land and its history; aroha, the heart; and wairua, the spirit. It’s no gimmick – and Dalton’s firm, TOA, has been asked by the Auckland Council to draw up design guidelines of how papakāinga – multi-generational housing – could be done within the council’s planning rules, and on non-Māori land. The results are set to be released next month.

One of the theoretical spaces TOA was given to play with was within the Tāmaki Regeneration area. The suburbs of Glen Innes, Panmure and Pt England lie on the western shores of the Tāmaki River, and once the estuary there was an important portage point for Māori to carry their canoes from one coast to the other. TOA turned the idea of waka pulled up alongside the river into homes with a culture of community in the centre, with common gathering and eating spaces, where kids could skip between homes to take shortcuts, and where large families could live together in places where space is at a premium – something there is a shortage of in Auckland.

TOA's concept plan for community living - shared spaces. Image: TOA

“It’s been a really interesting journey,” he says. Dalton spoke to Newsroom from Australia where he is addressing a conference on the results. “There’s been a lot of talk about crafting projects for Aotearoa, but what does that look like? How do we bring some of these principles into modern day conventions?”

One of the key changes is taking the predominance of cars and driveways off the sites.

“A lot of these developments are all about the car,” says Dalton. “You drive home, up the driveway, into the garage and lock the door. It saddens me, all these driveways in front ... whose culture is this? How has this come about?”

In TOA’s plans there is manaaki space – gathering space – where everyone can come together. “We are trying to create these things we all think are good for everybody,” says Dalton.

“What is really cool is that the council’s design office approached us, saying ‘obviously there is the Unitary Plan in place but can we step outside that? Show us what you want to do and the reason for it and we will build a case to make it so’.” An example might be over-ruling the one car-space per unit rule if it meant being able to build a community playground instead. Dalton says there are parallels with the work of Cohaus in Grey Lynn, but from a Māori-centric view.

The other “side project” TOA is involved with is modular – pre-fabricated – housing. In collaboration with Mike Greer Architectural the group plans to deliver 1000 modular homes in New Zealand by the end of 2020. Dalton says it’s faced virtually daily hurdles, but they’re chipping away at them.

It may feel like a new fast-building system but pre-fabrication has been used in New Zealand since colonial times, when raupō was bundled into wall panels at the edges of wetlands.

TOA promises these wooden homes will be ready in a fraction of the time it takes to build a conventional house. It also promises living spaces that are quality-built, sustainable, warm, earthquake-safe and cost-effective. The first such home has gone up in Napier, and Dalton says it’s possible to produce five of them a day. Assembly on site will take less than a month.

“It’s about crafting it in Aotearoa,” says Dalton. The timber – Douglas Fir – is grown in Kaiangaroa, and everything that can be sourced in New Zealand, has been. The scheme goes hand in hand with apprenticeships in assembly – Dalton asking what greater mana can there be than erecting a home for your whanau.

Three two- and three-bedroom designs are ready for production, all under 100 square metres. The cost is between $214,000 and $276,000 excluding GST. They are flexible enough to be ideal for small infill sites, or ones that are irregular shaped, or steep – sites where the land is likely to be more affordable. Three and possibly four-storey versions are on the drawing board.

Screen panels will decorate the entrance ways, and Dalton wants to make those region-specific, with a different design for each. “They will be much like a marae being represented by a carving with its whakapapa.” 

Dalton will be part of the University of Auckland’s Fast Forward Autumn lecture series, speaking on March 26 as one of a trio of architects on iwi increasingly finding their own solutions for housing their people.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners