Construction Workshops with Uku

Year: 2003
Primary Investigator(s): Dr Kepa Morgan

This research project developed from a need to solve a problem for Māori: to find a more cost-efficient, sustainable building technology than timber for papakāinga housing.

The roots go back to the 1990s, when timber costs increased and Dr Kepa Morgan first explored alternative technologies overseas such as dome housing in Canada. From 1994-1998 Kepa was Operations Manager at Te Rūnanga O Ngāti Pikiao, during which time the Rūnanga secured a Foundation of Research, Science and Technology (FRST) grant to conduct research into uku, an earth composite reinforced by muka from harakeke (flax). Kepa moved to The University of Auckland and, in 2003, received support from Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga (NPM) to grow the uku project, along with further funding from FRST.

This research has created breakthrough technology. The uku process involves the harakeke being mechanically stripped, cut to given lengths and combined with the soil cement mix to provide reinforcement. The combination of conventional rammed earth technology and the reinforced earth cement has many benefits including: low toxicity, warm during winter and cool in summer, lasts six generations, cost effective, soil from the surrounding land can be used and is easy to construct. It draws on traditional Māori knowledge, with similarities to maioro (fortifications) in pā construction.

Support from NPM meant the researchers could consider its appropriateness for Māori. They built trial buildings; one in the rural setting of Waimangō, and another in the urban setting of a kura kaupapa school in Otara. The school now uses their building as a music room, while the Waimangō building is a meeting house.

“The Waimangō elders,” says Kepa, “told us it is special to sleep in a building that is made of earth containing the blood, sweat and tears of their tipuna.”

The local communities gained new skills during the process, learning about earth-fibre construction as a result of their involvement.

While this NPM project is now complete, Kepa continues to develop the uku model and hopes to make uku housing more portable and in this way, meet Housing New Zealand criteria. He is also exploring potential interest from developing countries, because as well as the benefits listed, uku housing is earthquake resistant.

Peer reviewed journal papers
Voyde, E. & Morgan, T. K. K. (2012). Identifying Commonalities Between Indigenous Values and Current Sustainable Design Concepts in Aotearoa New Zealand. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples 8(2): 215-229.

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