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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Focus Arakainga Print E-mail

ImageExploring some aspects of sustainable design.



It was less than two days since the builders had first arrived on the site, but already there were cabbages and herbs in the conservatory garden, a post-box with a cheerful photograph outside the front door, and a pig in the "urban agriculture" pen.
The north-facing conservatory soaked up the Spring sun, with the vegetables and trees seeming to enjoy the extended warmth of their micro-climate. So did the many delegates from the international EAROPH (East Asian Regional Organisation for Planning and Housing) Conference who called in to discover what, after all the talking, New Zealand was actually doing about sustainable design. Sitting for many hours in the air-conditioned, artificially lit enclosure of the Aotea Centre was the perfect preparation for making fresh air and real cabbages seem larger than life.

Image The photograph on the post-box was a gentle reminder that numbers are no substitute for people. New Zealand had taken the idea of "Humane Cities" to the Nairobi Preparatory Committee for the Habitat II Conference, and by Istanbul the idea was being advanced by both UNDP and UNESCO. Global success however means little if it is not followed by local action. The smiling face made it clear that cities do not need to be as de-humanising as their de-personalised architecture. "What a friendly house" was the most common comment from passers-by who called in to ask why a house should suddenly have appeared in Aotea Square.

"Piglet" seemed to appeal to city-dwellers as much as the house. Most visitors were astonished to learn that China supplies almost all its vegetables from within city limits. The potential of cities to feed themselves was another of the themes of the Habitat II Conference. This was once well understood by New Zealanders, but as we have forgotten our roots we have allowed sustainable design habits to fall by the kerbing and channelling.

ImageRecovering our communal memories and telling our stories was an important theme of the Arakainga House. It was sited to evoke the urban pattern of the houses which once lined Greys Avenue. Few remember now that this was Auckland's Chinatown, with of course a corner pub at the bottom of the hill. The smell of opium has long gone, but Arakainga brought new smells back into the centre of the city. The lawson cyprus framing had been polished with beeswax and linseed oil. People coming inside from the heady mix of toxic chemical fumes which fill our cities found the sweet scent of natural products as soothing as it was healthy.

"Arakainga" means a house on a journey. A house which is able to renew itself and take on many different forms. A house which is a way of seeing rather than a material possession. Recognising that there is no "waste" in this world, for example, is more important than any issues of "waste management". Even the chemical-free Arakainga wood shavings were useful to grill some celebratory sausages.

There was much to celebrate. The whole adventure had been an exercise in "self-building" by "unskilled" planning students completing the Design course at the University of Auckland. Doing is fun, with nothing ever turning out to be quite as you expected. Like life. Life is meant to be fun, and so is housing.



Instant housing springs to life in the heart of Auckland City.




Arakainga - complete with conservatory, vegetable garden, urban agricultural pen and uniquely kiwi building methods.





This article was  first published in Architecture New Zealand November/December 1996 p42-43.