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

Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

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ImageEvery Christian is on a journey. We are nomads. It could be said that living sustainably comes naturally to a Christian.








Image We have every reason to live frugal lives and to touch the earth lightly. Rather than being driven by any guilt-fuelled need to make sacrifices to overcome problems such as the loss of species or climate change, Christians understand that too much baggage gets in the way of their journey. It seems strange then that we should often become weighed down by materialistic lives going nowhere.



Camping comes naturally to New Zealanders. We do not even think that there is anything special about heading off to the beach or the bush, to spend time in a tent or a bach. Traditionally this journey was also a spiritual journey. We left behind the materialism which was getting in our way, to purify our souls. We listened to the birds and the music of pure streams tumbling over polished rocks. We felt the rain running over our skin and were refreshed by it.


Image The ritual we once had of an entire country closing down for a couple of weeks of spiritual meditation was unique. However we were told it did not make economic sense, and somehow we forgot that ritual is more important than economics. Saving the planet does not make economic sense either, while destroying it apparently does. The eighth day.



Image The nomad rolls out a sleeping bag and watches the stars, while listening to the call of the ruru. The materialist builds a bedroom and insulates it to keep out the cold so that it will meet the comfort standards of some anonymous person, notable only for being more dead than alive.






Having a right attitude is more important than any extreme specific solution. Balance and diversity can then be achieved. People who lack balance become either bureaucrats or planners, and spend their time foisting their narrow materialistic values onto the rest of us. They create a world which comes between us and God.


Image Our present obsession with transport, for example, is based on the premise that everyone wants to get somewhere. In contrast a nomadic Christian presumes that it is the journey which is important. How we live is more important than how we die. We need to travel more slowly rather than more quickly because then we will be able to meet people along the way, discover who we are, and incidentally smell the roses.




An extreme view would be to suggest that if most people worked from home for five days each week, and only spent two days travelling, all our transport problems could be solved overnight without spending a single dollar. We would need of course to rethink how we work, but in doing that other problems might be overcome. For example our houses are, in very broad terms, four times as large as those of our grandparents. The houses themselves are twice the size and the occupancy rate has been halved. Most of the time they are empty. Even a thinking economist would concede that our urban form is so inefficient as to not make sense.



Image There is a global competition at the moment to build a house for US$300. The house also needs to be self-sufficient so that there is no need for any additional infrastructure costs. This figure has been set as that which could lift the entire world above the poverty line. Impossible? Not if you think of a house in the same way that we thought of an iPod or a cell-phone. A change in attitude is needed before the technical problems can be looked at. In theory a New Zealand Christian should win this competition. A person with the right mind-set.





Image More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. If the design of those cities is an obstacle to finding God we need to begin asking the right questions, not the typical ones currently drifting around in either Christchurch, Auckland, or especially Wellington. Nomads can have cities. It is just that they know this is not where they belong.

Tony Watkins


First published in Tui Motu July 2011 

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