Building sustainably: Three architects tell us how it’s done

Sustainable values and the values of te ao Māori are being incorporated into architectural practice. Rachel Helyer Donaldson discusses this with three players in the Wellington scene.

By Rachel Helyer Donaldson
Photography by Andy Hansen

Featured in Capital #86
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Stephen McDougall

“We create the built environment so we have a massive responsibility for climate change. And if we’re not doing something about it, then who is?”

Stephen McDougall, a director of Studio Pacific Architecture, speaks of the duty of care he says all architects and landscape architects (along with the rest of the construction industry) must exercise, if the world is to be pulled back from the brink of climate catastrophe. The construction sector is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and landfill.

There is, he says, an opportunity to make great changes. “The sustainable built environment must meet the needs of future generations. It’s about doing what’s right for both people and place.”

Stephen says Pākehā architects and landscape architects can learn a lot from Te ao Māori (the Māori world view), in which sustainability is deeply rooted. Collaborating on projects, architects can do this if they “sit alongside” mana whenua.

“Just being together, listening, and learning to build trust is the start of any co-design process. It’s how we develop our understanding of Mātauranga Māori, tikanga and story-telling.” He sees such patient collaboration as vital to ensuring “an enduring and sustainable built environment.”

Studio Pacific has been working with Tauranga City Council and the Otamataha Trust, which represents mana whenua, on a $300 million civic precinct intended to revitalise the city centre. To be called Te Manawataki o Te Papa, it will include a new library, museum, civic whare for council and community meetings, an exhibition space, and an upgraded art gallery. The involvement of mana whenua is vital, and the work includes regular meetings with kaumatua.

“We look to them to guide us. They may not be designers, but they know their place, the history, their stories. We’re the catalysts.”

Stephen follows advice from Professor Piri Sciascia, who was Government House’s Kaumatua until he died in 2020. Asked about improving cultural intelligence, “He talked about hokey pokey ice cream: If you’ve got issues or challenges, just have an ice cream, have a cup of tea. It’s about building a relationship, and just spending time together.”

Currently there are “very few” Māori architects and landscape architects in Aotearoa, and Stephen has observed that those few are “often burdened with taking charge of these processes. The young are having to learn fast to take on that responsibility. Most have broad shoulders and deep reserves.”

Wellington-based architect Whare Timu and landscape architect Tama Whiting, who are profiled on the following pages, began their careers at Studio Pacific, leaving in 2018. “They both left on the same day, the buggers!” says Stephen.

It was emotional. “Losing the two of them and also celebrating them: people move on to do other things. Tama was heading off to America and Whare was off to work at First Light and find his feet in another way.”

Among the gifts showered on the pair was a copy of Dr Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go! It was for Tama, but, Stephen says it was “a fitting tribute to both of them”.

Stephen is pleased to be working with Whare again. Now principal architect at Warren and Mahoney, he is involved in Tauranga’s civic precinct project. Meanwhile Whare and Tama are also collaborating on joint projects.

“I have a huge respect for them both. I’m very proud of the fact that we helped them get a foot in, that they had a place here; and they both made big contributions to Studio Pacific. Whare and Tama are natural leaders with their quiet, unassuming characters yet strong mana. They both have bright futures ahead of them.”

Tama Whiting

What to do with urban spaces can be a divisive issue in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, between heritage advocates and those who see intensification as the answer to the housing crisis. The meaning of community is always at the heart of the debate. Wellington could learn a lot from New York City, says landscape architect Tama Whiting, who recently returned to the capital after living and working there for three and a half years. “Denser living is better for building stronger communities, if designed well.”

In New York, wealthy and not-so-wealthy apartment dwellers alike use the available green spaces. “Whether you’re rich, poor or in between, you all use the same spots to socialise, to exercise, to relax, read, suntan, whatever.”

Higher-density living means that New Yorkers don’t spend their weekends weeding, hanging out in hardware stores, or doing DIY. Though DIY is “part of our Kiwi ingenuity culture”, Tama points out, “not everyone needs a huge lawn that they spend every weekend mowing. You’ll probably be much better off with a smaller planter box that you can manage, producing stuff that you use, while giving yourself more free time to actually enjoy the weekend.”

It’s also “a very New Zealand thing” to spend weekends fixing your house, he adds. The housing stock needs it, being “quite run down or not well-insulated.”

It’s inevitable that Aotearoa’s cities will move to denser living, but the understanding of what that could look like needs to change. He has seen a lot of poor quality local developments, using cheap materials. “They don’t focus on best design practices, and will probably turn into really rundown or decrepit buildings in the near future.” It’s also crucial that public spaces are well designed and used. “With enough amenities and activities, then people feel like the park is better than their little plot of land.”

Tama, 30, is from Te Whānau-ā-Apanui in the eastern Bay of Plenty and East Coast regions, but was born and raised in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. He attended Miramar Central Primary, Evans Bay Intermediate, and Wellington College. He studied architecture at Te Herenga Waka/Victoria University, and gained his Master of Landscape Architecture in 2017, while working for Studio Pacific Architecture. Then he bought a one-way ticket to New York, after landing a J1 Visa, drawn by his love of East Coast hip-hop. He knew no-one there but quickly found work, primarily for SCAPE, a landscape and urban design studio, which seeks positive change in communities via regenerative living infrastructure and new forms of public space.

Tama says he’s proud of having worked on large-scale, high-calibre projects with some big-name clients including Facebook and Amazon.
His biggest achievement was being part of the core design team on the US$60 million revamp of a 30-acre waterfront park on the Mississippi River in Memphis. Tom Lee Park is named after a heroic African American river worker who saved more than 30 people from drowning when a steamboat capsized in 1925. The project involved working with renowned artist Theaster Gates to retell some of the black history from that area of Memphis, which began as an industrial area.

Tama is back in New Zealand – his J1 exchange visa ran out in January. He was unsuccessful in his application for America’s O1 Visa “for individuals of extraordinary ability”, the only option left open to him. The US visa system is extreme. There’s nothing in-between a Work and Travel Visa and being a world-renowned Nobel Peace Prize winner, in order to stay there, he said.

When his application was turned down, Tama had 14 days to leave the country, after creating a life there. But he was locked out of New Zealand despite months of trying to book an MIQ spot. He quit his job and headed to Mexico with longtime girlfriend Katarina, 26, an Ecuador-born New Yorker.

It was “pretty crazy” but everything worked out. He had saved for just this, knowing he might be locked out of New Zealand for a long time.
“I was jumping through countries where I could get a tourist visa. But it was honestly the best time I’ve ever had in my life, just travelling and not working.”

After Mexico, the couple flew to Italy, and back to New York, to pack up their apartment in Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

They have been in New Zealand since March, starting with a road trip that began at the Whiting family home, once owned by “my nanny and koro” (his grandfather was master carver Cliff Whiting). “Then we zig-zagged down the country.”Returning to Aotearoa has been “definitely grounding [and] a lot less stress.” Between covid and the Black Lives Matter protests and the US elections, the past three years have been “pretty hectic” in New York. He and Katarina took part in several anti-racism protests in support of Black Lives Matter. Seeing body-bags stacked up outside the hospitals at the peak of the pandemic felt apocalyptic.

“Most people we knew knew someone, either family or friends, who had died of covid. All of that was pretty eye-opening, and it took its toll.”

The pair are currently living at Tama’s childhood home in Miramar. Tama has set up his own landscape architect consultancy, Maka Co-Lab, and is still consulting for SCAPE in New York. Tama and SCAPE are part of a design team working on Te Ara Tukutuku, the redevelopment of Auckland’s waterfront at Wynyard Point. The project, for Eke Panuku Development Auckland, will be co-designed with mana whenua, says Tama. It will also see him team up again with former Studio Pacific colleague Whare Timu.

Growing up, Tama was surrounded by artists – koro Cliff designed Te Papa’s marae and was the museum’s first kaihautū (leader). As a five-year-old, Tama and another child cut the ribbon to open Te Papa. Dad Dean Whiting is also a master carver and the kaihautū/director of Māori Heritage at Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga. Painter Séraphine Pick is Dean’s first cousin – “we call her ‘aunty’”.

They were all big inspirations, he says, but it was Studio Pacific architect Stephen McDougall (also related by marriage) who swayed Tama toward the design side. “My cousin and I would go hang out in his studio. You’d see all the models and people doing drawings. I always thought it was super cool.” It was like being an artist, he says, “but slightly more technical and with computers. Seeing that as a kid was like, ‘Wow! They’ve got all this fancy gear’.” Stephen had “flash suits” and used to drive “fancy architect cars”, too. “It’s a bit superficial but when you’re a kid you kind of look up to that!”

In New York Tama worked alongside indigenous communities such as Native American and African American communities to help them articulate their own design principles. These principles were based on “their cultural values, their own tribal principles that they might have for that particular area,” then their practical application to certain projects was worked through.

He says diversity in landscape architecture is vital for society, especially as we move towards densification, allowing designers to create “a sense of belonging, a sense of identity”, and impart a uniqueness to a place.

It also allows people who are underrepresented to see themselves in local spaces, after centuries of colonial design dominating cities the world over, he says. “It’s super important to start bringing forward some of these other narratives and histories.”

Whare Timu

Place has always been important to architect Whare Timu (Ngāti Kahungunu, Te Arawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa), in both his life and work. He is proud of coming from Heretaunga-Hastings which is, he says, “known for its qualities around place”, such as wide, open landscapes, and abundant orchards and vineyards. Whare’s father’s whānau is from Hawkes Bay, and their papakāinga, or place to return to, is Te Hauke, near Hastings.

Hawkes Bay is also where the late legendary John Scott came from. As one of New Zealand’s most highly regarded architects, he is renowned for his Māori mid-century modernist aesthetic.

Scott, of Taranaki and Te Arawa descent, is widely credited as the first Māori architect. His best-known building is Futuna Chapel in Karori, but he was prolific in Hawkes Bay, building more than 200 houses in the region. One of his earliest commissions was designing, in 1954, a chapel for St John’s College, the Catholic boys’ high school that he’d attended.

It all had a massive impact on the teenage Whare, who also went to St John’s, and over five years sat regularly in Scott’s chapel. “Learning about him opened up my world…. Once I knew who he was, I saw his architecture, no matter where I went.”

They also came from the same marae – Whare’s grandparents are buried next to John Scott at the Matahiwi Marae in Clive. After high school, Whare did an internship with Scott’s son, Jacob Scott, also an architect.

Now a principal, senior design lead, and cultural adviser at architects Warren and Mahoney, Whare says Scott’s stripped-down realist style of design, and the way he brought a te ao Māori sensitivity to architecture, has been a huge inspiration.

Whare flourished at St John’s. He was the top academic student in his sixth-form year, and achieved results in the top five percent for national NCEA results in art, graphic design, and physics. He was enlisted by his teachers to help develop consenting plans and landscaping schemes for properties owned by the Marist Brothers.

It seemed that his path to architecture was all set. But the reality wasn’t so simple. Whare never planned to go to university, because no one else in his family had. Then, when he was 17, Whare and his then-girlfriend had a baby daughter, Taylin. It didn’t faze his parents, who “weren’t too overbearing [and] fairly liberal.” His dad’s family are “deep in the gang life”, he adds.

“My dad played a big part in forming the Mongrel Mob, so my life has been quite colourful. I was exposed to a lot of things pretty early.”

School kept him focused, he says. “I always did well at school. I always had a knack for having quite strong working relationships with my teachers.”

He felt different, he adds. Although “All my family are patched”, he “always thought there was something else for me.”

His daughter’s birth was a chance for change. “Part of why I went down to Wellington was to get myself out of Hastings, to start afresh.”

Whare and his partner moved to Wellington when Taylin was one. He went to Wellington Architecture School at Victoria University, while his girlfriend went to teachers’ college.

“We went straight into flatting, and juggling family life with our study life.” They are no longer together, he says, but have a good relationship, sharing Taylin’s care. Taylin is now 17, the age he was when she was born. Whare, 35, says he’s happy to share his past. “It feels like it was yesterday, that she was just a baby in my arms!”

There were multiple scholarships for financial support, but architecture school was isolating. From his second year on, he was the only Māori student in his cohort at Victoria University. There were no Māori staff or lecturers to help him express “who I am as a Māori, to speak about the whenua, and moana, and the wai”.

He struggled to find a supervisor who understood what he was trying to do and eventually sought a critique from architect Derek Kawiti, then at Auckland University. His dissertation looked at “decolonising, declaiming and decarbonising” Wellington’s Te Aro Park, aka “Pigeon Park”, once the site of Te Aro pā. “He saw the struggle, and I’m grateful for him.”

He graduated with Honours, and his first job was at Studio Pacific Architecture for around a decade, working on large-scale projects and government work, and collaborating with iwi and hapu in a co-design environment. He developed a cultural unit within the studio, boosting the company’s understanding of te ao Māori, te reo Māori and tikanga Māori.

From 2018, Whare worked at First Light Studio, before joining Warren and Mahoney in 2021 to lead their indigenous design unit, Te Matakīrea, as an associate principal. Six months later he was promoted to principal.

Te Matakīrea (meaning the sharp end of a spear, or to drive forward and advance) is dedicated to empowering indigenous architecture in Aotearoa, Australia, and around the Pacific Rim.

Whare heads a core team of around 10 people working across Warren and Mahoney’s seven studios, including Melbourne and Sydney. The unit includes experts in technology, sustainability, and cultural design.

Current projects include one in Seattle, with First Nation clients, and Tonga’s new Parliament. In Australia Te Matakīrea is working on the North East Link Project (NELP), a multi-billion-dollar motorway scheme and the State of Victoria’s biggest-ever road project. The new freeway covers a lot of tribal areas and borders, and the unit is collaborating with Victoria’s first indigenous architect, Jefa Greenaway.

Co-design means architects must change their practice and thinking. There’s another layer to the design process: “the idea of a multi-layered kōrero, or conversation. Leaning in, with our ears first, and our pencils in our back pocket.”

Building relationships, understanding protocols, and using te reo Māori – both verbally and in documentation – go a long way. Understanding the Māori arrangement of spaces, such as where the ātea or courtyard traditionally goes, is crucial.

Sustainability goes hand in hand with mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). But the concept of kaitiakitanga has been “warped” by central and local government, says Whare. “It’s probably the most bastardised word in our dictionary.”

Too many people, he says, understand it as a word for “guardian”. The correct concept is stewardship of the land, which is very different, he argues.

“A guardian is a protector that stomps its foot and places its own ego in protecting something,” but kaitiakitanga, he explains, is about reciprocity. “If you want to take, you should be able to give back.”

Kaitiakitanga includes caring for people and involves past, present and future. It is not exercised just “for ourselves”, says Whare, but also “for our mokopuna’s mokopuna”.

“Architects have a pretty colourful track record of just plonking down buildings and creating these big sculptural forms that don’t really resonate or respond that well to the whenua.” For Whare, a successful project is “when a building actually fits in with the trees, and gives back to the waterways, and sits lightly on the earth. You can look at it and say, the architect that designed that designed it with love. Love towards the whenua, for the wai, for the moana.”

In terms of his work, he is proud of He Tohu, the Studio Pacific award-winning exhibition room at the National Library which displays taonga, including Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Built using windblown West Coast rimu and mechanically carved, the room’s design evokes the inside of a waka huia, or wooden treasure box. “It’s a once in a lifetime project… it’s a core space for all New Zealanders, to learn about our shared history.”

Outside of work, Whare enjoys painting. He lives in the CBD, and has a studio in his warehouse-style apartment “It’s just the perfect area to spend time and mellow out, yet you feel the buzz around you.”

Whare doesn’t exhibit, but he sells the occasional piece. Many find their way back home to Heretaunga, to his whānau’s 130-year-old villa. “The whole house is my gallery.”


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