No one was more surprised than the builders themselves when two "owner-builder" demonstration houses were recently completed in less than a week in Aotea Square, in the heart of downtown Auckland, next to the Town Hall.
The first was a conventional "low-cost" timber framed house, while the second suggested that good design can lower costs much further, through incorporating ideas about sustainability, energy efficiency, dynamic change, and the design process itself. Both houses were built by 120 unskilled students from the Planning Department of the University of Auckland.
The first house was built under the auspices of "Habitat for Humanity", a charitable organisation dedicated to helping families into their own homes, and to empowering communities. They have now completed 30 homes in 16 locations throughout New Zealand, using as much volunteer labour and donated material as possible. Volunteer builders from "Habitat for Humanity" provided management expertise, guidance, equipment and leadership.
The Va'a family "owners" were required to contribute 500 hours of "sweat equity" to this house and others in the programme. Perhaps more significant was the contribution of their smiles to publicising the whole idea of "owner-building".
There was extensive media coverage and an Internet programme provided daily updates on progress, with photographs. The WWW site, if anyone would like to browse over this material, is http://archpropplan.auckland.ac.nz/EAROPH/earoph96.html.
It was fun for friends in New York and London to be able to so easily monitor events in the Square.
The second house, called Arakainga or "house on a journey", was born out of a frustration with meetings. Everyone seemed to end up agreeing that it takes less time to build a house than it does to reach committee decisions and get planning approval. Building is also a lot more fun.
Arakainga acknowledged that current economic and planning attitudes are the primary cause of our poor standard of housing. "Owner-builders" can avoid becoming victims of mortgage overheads. They also do not know where they are going to end up until they have arrived. Arakainga illustrated how personal creativity can increase quality, while dramatically reducing costs. The trauma and challenges remain, but they move from the bank vault to the human psyche.
Both houses were demonstrating "owner-builder" possibilities to the 1996 EAROPH (East Asian Regional Organisation for Planning and Housing) Conference, being held in New Zealand for the first time.
At the Rio Earth Summit, the Copenhagen World Social Summit, and the Istanbul Habitat II Cities Summit New Zealanders had worked to achieve a global commitment to, and acceptance of, "self-build". International documents however have little meaning unless they are supported by local initiatives. The Habitat II team from the University of Auckland were the key players in getting the whole Aotea Square project "off the ground".
New Zealand Universities are placing an increasing emphasis on research. Theoretical research is no match for practical research. It is only in the real world that weaknesses are revealed and potential realised. The comments of the students indicate an astonishing growth of understanding. As a research programme valuable comparisons could be made between the cost, efficiency and human dimensions of the alternatives.
The first house followed the "high-technology" option and was lifted out of the Square by crane, with a single 12 ton lift, to be transported to an East Tamaki suburban site. The spectacle attracted both the crowds and the media, with power and money seeming to win the day. Spectacular architecture looks great in magazines but sadly contributes little to world habitation. Few would know that the first house lay marooned in the mud for two days after three failed attempts to get it onto the final site.
Arakainga took the "low-technology" approach and was knocked down for ease of handling. It was taken away on a humble trailer, with the students then trucking it to the Hokianga themselves, for re-building.
Above all else the project made it clear that knowledge is gained through participation rather than observation. Stories, legends and myths only belong to those who are of a culture. The building industry provides houses, but takes away homes. through isolating owners from the culture of building.
The University of Auckland Planning Department made a courageous move when it invited its students to recover this lost ground and enter again the culture of "owner-building".
This article first appeared in the Owner Builder magazine
from some of the Arakainga builders.
"You felt that the four of us had been friends for a long time. What you were seeing was mainly a result of our experiences together which have quickly produced a very close knit friendship."
"I honestly never thought it would happen. A bunch of planning students building. Actually physically doing something?"
"I don't think most of the Architecture students will ever recover from the shock of seeing Planning students, not only in the workshop, but actually producing something as magnificent as a house."
"A real high for me was when I got into the lift on the sixth floor and commented to a complete stranger "wow, can you smell that? You can smell our house way up here." I was in raptures about the smell of our house and chatting away to a stranger in a lift - something I tried to bring myself to do following your lecture where you talked about lifts but failed miserably."
"After I participated in the design and building of the Arakainga house I finally understood."
"This unique experience was really precious. When I told my family that I had built a house they would not believe me!! I am really proud of myself."
"Before this I was really reluctant to participate in any activities because I did not feel that I belonged to the New Zealand culture. During the process my self-esteem and dignity developed, and every time I look at the photographs I am proud of myself."
"The most precious thing I gained from the building process was friendship."
"This 'self-build' process actually allowed me to contribute my love, care, energy, time and effort into every inch and every corner of the house."
"I always tell my friends that I can now build a house myself!!"
"Wow ! That is really all I can say about the degree to which participating in the design and building of Arakainga has strengthened and empowered me."
"A dream I never thought I would have the ability to accomplish."
"At first I was extremely sceptical that building such a house was possible. There had been plenty of rhetoric about the process, and how it could be done, but when it came down to people doing something I thought it was a bit ambitious."
"I expected to see a pile of timber lying around the place with some old guy running around shouting instructions. But I was totally astonished to see the shell of the house right there standing in front of me."
"A funny story was on Saturday night. I went to town with a few of my mates. After a few quiet ones downtown we decided to go up to the Globe. I had been telling them how we had been building this house in Aotea Square. With the lights on the house it looked really impressive. My mates liked it. The funny thing was that one was an architecture student, the second was a mechanical engineering student, and the third was an apprentice chippy. To me there was a lot of pride in showing them what a bunch of planning students could achieve. It was good for a change not to have the piss taken out of planning for being all talk and policy, but no action."
"Building was hard yet it was so simple because no one was forced; everyone was equal; no one gave orders, but everyone helped each other."
"It made me realise that many people moan and complain about the state of the world, but do little to change it. This was a chance for to stop talking and actually do something."
"The building of the house enabled the concept of sustainability to become a reality. Up until then it had only been talked about."
"At first I found it hard not having a clear set of instructions to go by when building the house, but this made the final outcome all the more impressive. I was amazed that it all came together so well."
"A bunch of planning students who knew virtually nothing about building had done the unthinkable. Built a house."
"After my experience I plan in the future to be involved in the building of my own house. This means that the place will be all the more precious because it contains part of me."
"I feel really disappointed that I did not participate in the building of the Arakainga house. Judy was a person just like me, trying to break the wall between Asian students and Kiwi students, but she made it. I have started to notice that she has made close friends with other students. They study together and do things as a group. After seeing her success I have begun to ask myself about knowing my fellow students for three years, and yet not making any close friends with them. Now I realise what the problem is, and how I can solve it."
"Why let someone else build the house for you when they aren't going to ever live in it?"
"I came in first to observe. I saw a few people giving Tony a hand. There were no ground rules laid down to make students participate. I tried to participate. As work progressed I became proficient and mastered some of the art and technique of building the house. I later built the corner posts myself, operating the electric saws etc. It was great. It was unbelievable. The experience of the design process carried me through. I wanted to participate right to the end."
"The confidence and experience gained from Arakainga inspired me to approach a man across the road from our house who was building his own home. He had a few workers but I decided I would offer to help. At the least I would have introduced myself to a neighbour. He was very happy, if not a little confused, as to why I was helping him for free, but gladly took my offer of labour."
"The more we discussed the process, the options and the possible outcomes the more optimistic I became. I had never thought of a house that could go wherever you went and grow in response to your personal demands."
"The fact that you could build a house step by step, panel by panel, and still live in it, amazed me."
"I loved the fact that the ability to build was put back into our hands. When I thought about it, it seemed ridiculous to have some-one else build for you, just as it would be to have some-one else feed you."
"I felt proud to be part of the building of Arakainga. I think the plants and piglet were just what the house needed."
"I have learnt more in this paper than any other in my degree. Thanks."
"The house, wasn't it wonderful! That was the most enjoyable and rewarding thing I have ever done at University. At the same time it was the most difficult and the most instructive."
"It is amazing how a plan on paper completely misrepresents reality. I looked at the paper designs and imagined a 'paper' house. When I actually had to lift and carry this house it suddenly was not as simple as it appeared on paper. It looked easy on paper."
"The trunk of the letter box was most popular. I made sure I picked the most bowed log from my backyard and spent over an hour just trying to get it to stand up. But the end result was worth the effort. I wanted it to be 'natural' but still slightly quirky, like me!"
"I didn't know whether to put my name and photo on the letter box. In the end In the end I thought since the house belonged to 'all of us', but we couldn't all be on the box, a symbolic representative should get the honour. So arrived Peter Smith."
"Working in Aotea Square was an experience I will never forget. Not only was it difficult having hundreds of strangers' eyes watching your every move, it was especially tricky when I did not know what the next move would be."
"We learned much from the construction that we didn't realise until later. We just kept going and going, not looking to far ahead. This let us concentrate on the job in hand."
"The paper design should be done after the house is complete, as small events during construction shape the final design as much as anything else."
"I believe it is important that any part of the building process should be able to be done by any person." "You don't have to do everything, but the idea is that you could."
"The same design could come out a hundred different ways, depending on who is the chief builder on the day."
"To me knowledge means power, but more appropriately mana. By sharing ideas together with other students involved in the design and construction of Arakainaga I was in turn able to learn from them, through their own ideas, experiences and knowledge. The knowledge learnt was rich and diverse given the variety of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities involved."
"Results were immediately obvious and this maintained morale - especially when we could see the house growing with each panel put up."
"It felt great afterwards to be able to run your hand down the softened edge and know that you had helped finish that panel."
"What increased my feeling of ownership the most was the waxing and oiling of the plywood. Being able to see how you contributed to the scent and warm glow of the house was very rewarding."
"Getting all the positive feedback from the class for the linseed oiling made it worth while putting in the extra time and effort."
"The process has given me the knowledge that above anyone else I am the most suitable person to create my own home."
"The design process was also a learning process. We used Piglet's pen as a ladder to put the roof up."
"I increased my self-confidence by bossing around people who were doing nothing, and getting them involved, as well as through talking to the public explaining the process. Participate was all one had to do to become empowered."
"Setting the house up in Aotea Square involved integration and connection between students and public. By talking to people we created good feelings and people were willing to learn more."
"Self-build allows a person to enjoy and gain satisfaction from their work, and to pass knowledge and enjoyment on to others."
"The documents from Habitat II will only fulfil their potential if they bring about a fundamental change in the way we see our cities."
"The actual hands on experience was more than a buzz. It gave me a sense of worthiness; I was useful;"
"The design process for the Arakainaga house was, from my point of view, an amazing one. What stood out the most was the ability of many, and the great involvement of people like Samasoni.
"The scale of the task appeared enormous originally, but as we went on it proved to be viable."
"In effect the process had swept me in."
"Seeing what was taking place in the workshop also altered my approach to the herb garden planter box. It meant attempting to make it look even more professional than I had originally intended."
"Many have now lost their instinct for creativity, and with it their ability to express themselves. Building Arakainga empowered me by helping me rediscover that creativity."
"Rubber stamped, bureaucratic housing created by others en masse has always been abhorrent to me, but I think my understanding has grown immensely. I think more about creativity, about ways to personalise a house, and I'm less daunted by the possibility of just doing it."
"It was a wonderful feeling and such projects build and maintain communities."
"Arakainga was essentially a political statement which challenged a number of accepted notions about design."
"Arakainga showed at least some people that quality is within their reach, and is not dependant on exploiting more and more of the world's resources."
"My participation in the Arakainga house taught me that it is indeed possible to co-create in a self-organising manner, and get a result everyone can be proud of."
"Through my participation in the design of the Arakainga house I have learned more about my own personality, my strengths and weaknesses."
"What I have learned this semester will help me to understand 'ownership' as I move through life, relationships and various jobs."
"I thought the process of building the Arakainga house was brilliant from start to finish."
"As an individual I felt empowered because as part of a group we had achieved something incredibly special - we had built a house from scratch in two weeks!"
"I initially approached the task with some trepidation as I felt I did not have many relevant skills for the job at hand. However I soon discovered that there was always something for everyone to do, and I was quickly encouraged to try new things. This increased my confidence immensely."
"I also liked the philosophy behind the house which was that we would achieve as much as we were able to and that people would help when they could rather than having a set timetable of helpers, and a strict 'commercial' deadline. This made the completion of the house even more satisfying, and the process by which it was completed was an eye-opener to many! I felt extremely pleased and proud to have been part of the project."
"Before this semester I would never have though about building my own house but now I feel that I would be capable of doing it, safely and at low cost and risk. I believe others say the same."
:We were also flying in the face of bureaucratic rules and regulations, and manoeuvring around these set us free to try new things, and really work towards sustainability and safe housing for all."
"When you build your own thing you can appreciate the time and effort that goes in, and you love and respect it as part of yourself."
"Initially as the idea of Arakainga began to form I was confused and not very enthused. As was pointed out later, I had my 'black hat' (Edward de Bono) on, and firmly in place. I mocked other people's contributions, and really could not understand how the finished house would look. In retrospect I can see myself as one of Tony's flowers - as a bud. Closed, shut up tight, but the ideas developing inside.
Then as the house became reality, and I began to develop a personal idea, my outlook changed. I was not totally convinced that it would work, but I could now understand the concepts or principles as to why we were making the house. It was going to be ours, made by us, using a process that was personal, involving us all. And the flower opened a little more.
Then finally as I began to work on the house, and build it on Friday, the house became mine. It was my effort I put into making the 'solar panels', my effort into covering the walls and making the vegetable garden. And the flower now opened fully."
"It was at this stage that the Town Hall construction workers would walk past on their break and make snide comments, or come and hassle me, but it did not worry me so much. A month ago if this had happened I know I would have joined in with them, but since doing it myself I felt proud and a sense of achievement. From this self-build process I can now understand (because I have done it myself, not just heard about it from lecturers) and therefore can identify with other people who are doing the same, rather than ridiculing them."
"The importance of empowering people to achieve their own dreams is necessary to achieve a sustainable, humanised city."
"My personal idea was that it would be unlikely to get built, and I had problems actually visualising what this house would look like."
"Simple initial ideas about the role of the door being a practical, functional thing were transformed into seeing the door as an entrance with spiritual significance."
"Back then a 2 x 4 would have conjured up thoughts of a squash game score, not the size of a piece of wood."
"I didn't really care if no one ever looked at it. I liked it, and for me that's all that really mattered."
"You had to participate to receive a response."
"I had always wanted to be involved but no opportunities had shown themselves. It is difficult to get onto a construction site as a woman with zero construction experience."
"I know now that building is not some branch of the occult and that women are just as capable as men."
"I'm always surrounded by horrendously competent people which makes the learning curve a savage thing. Therefore I have preferred doing the 'learning thing' alone. However I'm over that."
"Self-build as a concept is great. In reality it's fantastic."
"At times when everyone felt tired and ready to give up, the house still got built."
"The Arakainga house was an illustration of the building experience. It's implementation embraced project objectives, project design, and project management."
"Building the house gave me dignity."
"The building of the Arakainga house was a unique experience."
"We were committed to building a house which smelt like a home, rather than just another building in Aotea Square."
Md Rafiquez Zaman