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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

RMA Print E-mail

ImageThe Resource Management Act

This position paper alerts architects to the significant changes brought about by the Resource Management Act in response to growing concern about the deterioration of the environment, and makes the long and complex legislation accessible in an easy-to-follow format. It is also intended to stimulate discussion among architects about the radical changes of direction envisaged for our profession. It is not intended as a legal document, and architects are advised to refer to the legislation itself to clarify any legal matters.





Imagepurpose and principles
“The purpose of the Resource Management Act is to promote the sustainable management of … physical resources” [5(1)], including, we must assume, both buildings and cities.

The concept of sustainable management goes further than the “long-life, low energy, loose-fit” ideas of the seventies and recognises the significant contribution of the built environment towards the collapse of planetary ecosystems, and also the significant contribution which must be made by the built environment to reduce stress on the natural environment.



In adopting the definition of “environment” from the 1986 Environment Act the act assumes that buildings are an “ecosystem” [2(1)]

• Buildings are not to be seen in isolation from the natural environment.

The Act requires architects to sustain the potential of buildings “to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations” [5(2)(a)]

• the professional commitment of the architect, which extends beyond any commitment to an individual client, to the public at large, is further extended to include all those who will use the building, or be affected by it, for the entire life span of the building.

The Act requires architects to seek to safeguard “the life supporting capacity of air, water, soil and ecosystems” [5(2)(b)]

• The ideal envisaged by the Act is reversible architecture which will neither scar nor do violence to the natural environment. It recognises that the life span of buildings is very short in comparison to the life span of sand dunes or water tables.

The Act anticipates that architects will design buildings capable of “avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment”. [5(2)(c)]

• The preservation of solar access or the retention of the integrity of climate patterns are required not as matters of good design but rather as matters of principle. A time is envisaged when it will no longer be acceptable to concentrate stormwater. The desalination of the harbour and the gathering up of heavy metals into the water cycle through stormwater concentration will be seen as architectural problems.

Architects are required to recognise and provide for “matters of national importance”. [6]

• There is an environmental brief for all buildings. These include the following.

Architects must preserve “the natural character of the coastal environment” [6(a)]

• Headlands are appropriate locations for pohutukawas, not buildings.

Architects are required to protect “outstanding natural features and landscape from inappropriate subdivision, use and development”. [6(b)]

• Ridgelines are appropriate locations for trees, not buildings.

Architects are required to maintain and enhance “public access to and along the coastal marine area, lakes and rivers”. [6(d)]

• Housing schemes which seem to provide attractive architectural forms at the waters edge, but which in fact privatise public space, are no longer acceptable.

Architects are required to provide for “the relationship of Maori and their culture and traditions with their ancestral land, waters, sites, waahi tapu and other taonga”. [6(e)]

• The ethical dilemmas of architects encouraging development which raises the value of built form to a level where New Zealand ownership is no longer sustainable are complex indeed.

Architects are required to “have particular regard to Kaitiakitanga“. [7(a)] “Kaitiakitanga means the exercise of guardianship, and in relation to a building “includes the ethic of stewardship based on the nature” of the building itself”. [2(1)]

• There is as yet no case law regarding Kaitiakitanga and each tribe has a different perception of the term. Until case law is established the definition in the Act makes it clear that architects have a responsibility to exercise a role of stewardship.

Architects are required to “have particular regard to the efficient use of physical resources”. [7(b)]

• The market is not envisaged as an adequate justification for wastage at any stage of the building process. The design of buildings must also take account of the eventual demolition of those buildings and the recycling of building components.

Architects are required to “have particular regard to the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values [7©] namely “those natural or physical qualities and characteristics of an area that contribute to people’s appreciation of its pleasantness, aesthetic coherence, and cultural and recreational attributes”. [2(1)]

• Buildings are expected not only to meet minimum planning requirement but also to be good neighbours.

Architects are required to “have particular regard to the intrinsic values of ecosystems”. [7(d)] An architect is required to recognise that trees, streams, or other parts of ecosystems “have value in their own right”. [2(1)] a design must take account of “biological and genetic diversity” [2(1)], and also “the essential characteristics that determine an ecosystem’s integrity, form, functioning and resilience”. [2(1)]

• The recognition that a building is itself an integral part of an ecosystem suggests that buildings which are appropriate to our time will be distinguishable by their design diversity, as the considerations which will form the basis of the design will be similar to the considerations which result in bio-diversity.

Architects are required to recognise and protect “the heritage values of sites, buildings, places or areas”. [7(e)]

• The Act envisages that values rather than artefacts will be protected. The emphasis is a move away from buildings seen as objects to buildings seen as places-in-context. Urban designer are expected to move beyond intellectual concepts of form to a respect for deep structures of any specific city.

Architects are required to maintain and enhance “the quality of the environment”. [7(f)]

• It is the quality of the environment which is emphasised rather than perceptions of granite giving quality to buildings.

significant changes from previous legislation
• A new owner becomes liable for the acts of a previous owner.
• It seems that an architect specifying, for example, toxic materials (CCA treatment) will be liable for the environment impact during the entire life span of the material.
• The Act adopts a new permissive approach to land-use planning. The concept is that any activity is permitted unless it contravenes a rule in a District Plan. This reverses the prescriptive approach of the TCPA 1977 which identified the only uses permitted in a zone. It will now be possible to have an architect’s office in a residential zone.
• Everyone now has a right to object to any application for consent, so that questions of status no longer apply.
• Anyone can apply for a district plan to be changed, so that it will be possible for the public, or a developer, to initiate a plan change without having to wait for the review.
• The granting of a consent does not dispense with the duty to avoid adverse affects on the environment, so that the potential exists to readdress the initial grant of consent at any time.
• Resource consents will be “tradeable”, so that the current trend to make planning applications to gain a profit, rather than permission for a use, can be expected to escalate.
• When regional coastal plans have been prepared and notified, which will be in about two years time, the Minister of Conservation may direct that, in areas where he believes competition for sites exists, they may be put up for tender.

Resource Management Act 1991 (which came into force on 1 October 1991).

It will be many years before the complex issues raised by the Resource Management Act will have been addressed in the courts, and meanwhile architects should act with both courage and caution.

January 1992

Tony Watkins
Senior Lecturer, Planning Department, University of Auckland.

The above is a refereed paper and as such represents current thinking on the subject.


This Position Paper was published by the NZIA and issued to all New Zealand architects by the NZIA  in support of the NZIA Envronmental Policy.

< Prev   Next >