Traditional Māori construction…


Internationally acclaimed architect and researcher Professor Anthony Hoete has returned from a successful career in London to work with communities here to revive ancient Māori construction techniques.

He and his team aim to rebuild a historic Bay of Plenty wharenui that was destroyed in the Napier earthquake and have been awarded funding from Toka Tū Ake EQC (Earthquake Commission) to enhance the seismic resilience of the new wharenui and its community.

“Toka Tū Ake EQC wants to create more resilient communities through design and construction of stronger buildings, so Professor Hoete’s work aligns well with our goal to improve Aotearoa New Zealand’s resilience to natural hazards,” says Toka Tū Ake manager research Dr Natalie Balfour.

“Investing in Māori researchers and matauranga Māori has been a key focus of this year’s biennial grants, so we are proud to be able to support this amazing project,” says Balfour.

Aside from Toka Tū Ake funding, the research is also supported by QuakeCoRE, the Centre of Research Excellence for seismic resilience and the Endangered Wooden Architecture Programme at Oxford Brookes University.

Professor Hoete and his team at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland, along with Dr Jeremy Treadwell and Professor Jason Ingham, head of Civil and Environment Engineering, will incorporate traditional Māori construction methods, endangered knowledge called mīmiro, to build a prototype timber structure and test its seismic resilience on the full-scale structure.

“The origins of mīmiro can be traced back to the ships and strong sail lashing our ancestors used to travel across the Pacific. They had a deep knowledge of building and creating strength and tension in structures, so we want to recreate those techniques that have been lost and use them to give our wharenui greater seismic resilience,” says Hoete, who says that there is only one known whare remaining in New Zealand built with mīmiro techniques, which is a Whakāta in the Okains Bay Museum on Banks Peninsula.

The team is working closely with Ngāti lra o Waioweka who built the original Tānewhirinaki wharenui near Opōtiki during the 1860 New Zealand Wars, only to witness its destruction in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 1931.

The most important carvings representing the iwi’s ancestors were saved from the wreckage and remarkably stored in a shed at the marae for nine decades.

In January this year, Hoete recognised that a wānanga held at Waioweka Marae would be a perfect moment to bring out the carvings and suspend them from scaffolding.

“For all but two members of the hapū it was the first time they had seen the carvings of their ancestors standing, albeit temporarily, so it was pretty special,” says Hoete.

His team lashed the carvings to a scaffolded framework, before LiDAR scanning the framework with lasers to create an accurate record of the physical dimensions of each carving. This information could then inform the reconstruction of Tānewhirinaki.

Hoete explains that the original timber had deteriorated over 90 years and would not be able to carry the loading of a new wharenui.

“So instead, we will design a new structure that will act like an outer whare to which we will sensitively attach the original carvings to the inside of this new structure,” says the professor who recently received a New Zealand Institute of Architects’ award for the ‘pop-up wharenui’ his team built for the wānanga.

In the United Kingdom, Hoete had been working with engineered timber to create affordable housing and wants to do the same for Māori communities, using the indigenous construction research at the Tānewhirinaki wharenui.

Hoete explains that his team is currently designing the timber structure, by using interlocking compression joints instead of bolting parts together, while the tensile elements will pull the structure to the ground, like a tent.

“I would describe it as a structural sculpture,” says Hoete, who said his ancestors would have used flax to create the lashings but for practical reasons has opted for modern metal wiring.

Once the core structure has been completed, the team will pull the vertical portals sideways using a winch off a jeep to test the horizontal strength required for seismic resilience. Vertical strength will be tested by water weights.

“We are pretty confident in our designs, but the proof will be in the real-life testing.”

It is clear that Hoete is passionate about the wharenui project and getting the local community involved. “We do a lot of outreach work with the local community and schools, and some of the local youngsters have already shown an interest in a career in architecture, which is pretty amazing.

“This project is about research and design, but it is also so much more. I believe this project has the power to transform our communities.”