Earth housing a new low-cost option


An Uku house will be built in Northland as part of a University of Auckland engineering research project into sustainable, low-cost housing options for rural Maori.

Civil Engineering PhD student John Cheah is working with the Ahipara community to develop the Uku house by the end of 2010. Uku, Maori for earth, is a building method which involves mixing earth and flax with cement to build quality, affordable housing.

“The research follows the principles of papakainga development. It aims to equip rural Maori communities with the knowledge to use their own earth and labour to build desirable housing,” Mr Cheah says.
“Rural Maori are an important and significant component of the New Zealand population who have a lower average quality of health and accommodation due to issues with housing. This research seeks to address this imbalance.”

Mr Cheah says Uku technology is ideal for rural Maori communities where land is owned by the local hapu, rather than individuals, and when financial barriers may prevent them from developing that land.

The earth and flax for the Ahipara Uku house will be sourced from within Ahipara, and the community will work together to build the house to New Zealand building and council standards, including the New Zealand earth building standards.

Ahipara residents attended a workshop at the University’s Faculty of Engineering this month where they learnt how to prepare the flax, how to mix it with earth and cement, and how to compact it into walls.

Mr Cheah also verified the suitability of Ahipara earth and flax for Uku housing, and conducted seismic tests on the finished walls as part of his research. Another workshop will be held at Ahipara in November when four practice walls will be built on site.

Ahipara resident Rueben Taipari Porter, from Te Rarawa iwi, is leading the project in his home town, and is building the first Uku house in Northland for his hapu.
He will support the building of additional Uku houses in his community once Mr Cheah’s research project ends. Mr Porter, whose whanau stretches back 20 generations in Ahipara, says he has an obligation to provide better conditions for his descendants.

“Improving the standard of living for my people is an important factor in my leading this alternative concept. I am very grateful to the University and the Engineering Faculty for their support,” he says.
Mr Cheah hopes his study will help validate the performance and viability of Uku housing so it can be adopted by more communities. The results will be compiled into a design guide, which will be available in English and Te Reo Maori.

The University’s Faculty of Engineering has been involved in the construction of three previous Uku dwellings — at Haumingi papakainga on Lake Rotoiti, Te Kura Takawaenga O Piripono in Otara, and Waimango papakainga on Tikapa Moana (Firth of Thames).

Mr Cheah’s three year project is funded by a Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship, awarded to New Zealand’s top scholars by the Government.
Previous Uku research at the University has been supported by the Foundation for Research Science and Technology, and Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga.

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