Urban Designer - Vernacular Architect - Maritime Planner - Owner-Builder - Servant of Piglet - Educator - Author - Revolutionary - Peacenik - Tour Guide 

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Leaky buildings Print E-mail

Submission to the Select Committee on the Weathertightness of Buildings in New Zealand



The enemy within.

A building is much more than a box which keeps the weather out.

A good building mediates between people, place, culture and occasion. An excellent building goes further and is a cultural act which gives form to our whakapapa.

Reductionism lies at the core of the leaky building syndrome. Simplistic views lead to systemic failure.

No one who goes tramping would wear a parka which could not breathe. The build-up of sweat on the inside of the parka would leave the wearer soaking wet and at risk of hypothermia. Trampers do not buy bad parkas because they value their lives. They need to be self-reliant and they also understand the weather in the mountains. Their relationship with place is one of friendship. The mountain is not an enemy to fight against.

A good building is like a body. Our skins breathe. We drink water and if we fail to do so we quickly die of dehydration. We excrete waste water, and if we fail to do so we would soon die. We move constantly and if our limbs are set in plaster they atrophy. Our bodies are astonishingly complex and sophisticated. Our bodies are an example of design excellence.

A healthy building is like a healthy body. A healthy person embraces the natural world. They breathe deeply They sleep deeply in the night and rise with the sun. A healthy person belongs in their environment. They turn it to advantage.

A building which seeks to fight against the weather sees the natural world as an enemy. It measures its success by its ability to keep nature out. The enemy however is within. We breathe out moist air, We fill the air with steam when we cook.

The super-insulated sealed box is a health hazard in the same way that clothing which cannot breathe is a health hazard.

Good buildings welcome nature as a friend, seeking to give us life. They have a peaceful and harmonious relationship to environment and place.

Excellent buildings gather water rather than rejecting it. They mediate the water cycle so that we end up with water where we want it, and we certainly need water. The Waikato pipeline is a symbol of systemic building failure. A sustainable city would gather its own water, and not destroy the natural world with the stormwater which is currently produced by buildings. a change of attitude is needed rather than getting a few flashings right.

Excellent buildings gather their own energy. They welcome the sun and the breezes. They have warm corners and courtyards. They have cool corners too, and perhaps a cellar for the wine, and for storing produce through the winter. A sustainable city would have buildings which produce hot water rather than consuming it. A change of attitude is needed rather than more inspections and more regulations.

Reductionist buildings which simplify or ignore the really interesting questions become obsessed wiuth irrelevant questions. Tuscan villas are excellent in Tuscany. They are a nonsense in a sub-tropical paradise. Fashion and style become substitutes for quality. Fast food architecture is not good for your health.

The leaky building syndrome presents the opportunity to ask some very basic, and very important, questions about how we build and why we build.

Once building was part of the New Zealand culture. We knew how to build just as we knew how to cook. Only those who know how to cook appreciate the truly magnificent work of art that a great meal is. Only those who know how to build appreciate great architecture.

When we forget how to build we also forget who we are. Imitation Tuscan villas are very different from the genuine article, which of course we enjoy when we go to Tuscany. Bad building begins by asking the wrong questions. A consumer society which celebrates cheap plastic imitation products which fall to pieces the week after you buy them deserves what it gets.

In a knowledge wave economy the first thing we need to know is our whakapapa. Who we are. Our place. The way we do things. Our traditions. We forget our whakapapa at our peril.

Culture comes at a price. A cheap culture will have leaky buildings, lots of inspectors, endless bureaucrats blaming someone else, and the most wonderful array of fascinating but irrelevant regulations. A strong culture simply knows how to do things well.

My great-grandfather built his own home. My grandfather built his own home. My father built his own home. I built my own home. None of us were builders, in the sense that none of us spent our lives building houses for other people. However all of us were builders, in the sense that every New Zealander had skills.

We knew our whakapapa. We knew our traditions. We knew that we belonged to a nation of self-reliant people who knew how to house themselves and their families. Building was not something unfamiliar. Children grew up in the workshop and helped out around the bach. You began to acquire buildings skills long before you went to school, or set out to build your first tree hut. Not everyone may have built their own homes, but everyone knew a great deal about building.

Vernacular building gives form to a strong culture which belongs in place. Vernacular builders know both how to celebrate and how to build. Vernacular cities are concerned with process rather than product. Sustainable building will always be vernacular building.

Health is too important to be left to the health industry. No one else can get fit for you. You need to do that yourself. A right balance is needed between a nation which understands their bodies, and professionals who can deal with incomprehensible super technology and medical crises.

Healthy homes are too important to be left to the building industry. No one else can stop you from getting wet. You need to do that for yourself. A right balance is needed between a nation which understands how to build, and socially responsible professionals who can deal with incomprehensible super technology.

Leaky buildings are not a technical problem. they are a cultural problem.

Tony Watkins FNZIA, RIBA, M.Arch, Dit TP (Hons)
Karaka Bay, Glendowie, Auckland

I wish to appear before the Committee to s[peak to my submission.


21 October 2002