Wellington fledgling architects have big plans

DIANA DEKKER
Last updated 11:23 09/03/2013

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Architects often do their best work in their later years. Renzo Piano is 75 and his astonishing Shard has just pierced the London sky. Frank Gehry of Bilbao Guggenheim fame is, at 84, still making architectural statements. Famous American architect Philip Johnson worked into his 90s, until he died in 2005.

Wellington has its indefatigable practitioners too, such as Ian Athfield, Alan Minty and John Mills.

But they all began at the beginning. Each year nearly 80 graduates pour out of Victoria University's School of Architecture and Design. They don't all get to practise architecture. But the most talented and tenacious do. They score jobs and they work towards registration. They have dreams and philosophies and they all hope to change the face of their city or even their country.

ELI NUTTALL, 26

Eli Nuttall's vision is a proliferation of more affordable, more energy-efficient, more reliably built houses. He and his mates have already made one and are poised to make more. Christchurch awaits.

Young graduates like Nuttall rarely leap out of university and into their own architectural business. They know they need to knuckle down in an established practice - if they are lucky to be chosen by one - to become registered, and to gradually find their design feet. But Nuttall, 26, along with Anna Farrow, 29, and Ben Jagersma, 26, had, as students, already firmed up a vision they hoped capable of driving a practice. They created, as a project at Victoria University, the energy efficient, bach-like First Light House, put up on the Wellington waterfront. It was shipped off in bits to become an award winner at the United States Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon in Washington in 2011. The team placed third overall from 19 others from around the world and they won the engineering award.

"It was a pretty cool hands-on masters project," Nuttall says.

They wanted to show that a well- constructed bach could perform better than most of New Zealand's existing housing stock. They launched into First Light Studio with registered, established architect Guy Marriage and architectural graduate Nick Officer, armed with the conviction that their ideas could improve the quality of the country's housing.

"We had a gut feeling we wanted to go on with what we were doing. It was an opportunity that only comes around once."

Even so, from student project to a business was "a bit of a leap". "Having done the competition house gave us all sorts of experience in quite a defined area - in making an energy-efficient home that could be pre-built for shipping. It was limited experience but it was a good start."

Unusually, they work on everything together. "That's part of why we got into it. We work well as a team."

They've redesigned the competition house so it's true to their original vision "but more manageable than usual in New Zealand", selling them from around $300,000 completed, with two bedrooms and the ability to add a third. Central to the design are comfort, reduced energy bills and wastage, and fast, quality- controlled development off-site to avoid budget blowouts.

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"I think there's an inefficiency in the way we're building in New Zealand and I think we can do it a lot better, and the materials are out there to do it better."

He confidently expects that when building speeds up in Christchurch, "some of ours will definitely end up there. Quality housing is urgent down there."

In such situations, "traditional construction just won't cut it".

Bespoke houses, renovations and additions are all in their repertoire, and include a dramatic outdoor pavilion for a Vogeltown house.

GEORGIA LECKIE, 25

Georgia Leckie was good at maths at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School and for fun made meticulous little models of whatever took her fancy. Logical and creative, she always knew that she wanted to be an architect - "It's quite a cool profession".

She works at Novak and Middleton Architects - as in Simon Novak and Richard Middleton. "I'm pretty junior. They're quite inspiring. I chose them because I love their work."

Leckie's stamp is on the modern retail fit-out for Vodafone offices, including one in Lambton Quay. As part of her role she ensured the fit-out worked for each individual Vodafone space. But beyond this exacting commercial work she aspires to designing and changing Wellington's houses, making the old new and relevant again. She admires the practice's reputation for clever renovations and has decided residential work is her great interest "making old houses usable for a modern lifestyle, mainly opening them up and getting rid of poky little rooms, letting the light in and integrating the house into the garden".

She recently designed an extended living space for a 1920s house in Wellington. "It's transforming a house and good for someone my level. It gives you an understanding of the basics. You start with half a shell and work out a way to deal with it. You can do beautiful modern extensions on an old house, something that doesn't try to compete but is different.

"I like working one-on-one with clients where individuals are involved with the plan and will see the benefit of the work put in every day."

Beyond idealism and attractive, sensible homes, Leckie aims to design safe buildings. Even away from work she hears a post- Christchurch earthquake refrain of concern over whether people are safe or not.

"Now it's definitely in the forefront of everyone's mind. There'll be a lot of work in Wellington with seismic upgrading. Novak and Middleton does a lot of work with seismic strengthening."

CHRIS WINWOOD, 30

Chris Winwood works in legendary architect Ian Athfield's Khandallah practice, in Athfield's famous white tumble of house-cum-offices. He's one of about 35 working up there on the hill, not all of them architects. Architectural graduate Winwood is one of those in "the design section, the engine room".

Yes, as an architect, he'd like to change Wellington, "one project at a time". Winwood - also an avid cyclist and singer for the band Newtown Rocksteady - loves the city. "It was interesting arriving here fresh from Nelson, which is a relatively small town, and seeing Civic Square [designed by Athfield] with the public library and how well it worked and how important it was for Wellington."

A primary attraction to architecture, and one exemplified by Athfield, is "the nature of public space, the things that happen within that space, the things that space allows".

Winwood did his thesis at Victoria on the idea of a sound recording and production venue on the site of Circa Theatre - "a big amphitheatre with a stage and the building opening up to the area". He's interested in the idea of sound, as well as materials, "informing" public space.

In the early stage of his time with Athfield - he graduated in 2004 and joined in mid-2005 - he worked on the Athfield-designed redevelopment of what was the Overseas Passenger Terminal, currently being constructed, and was part of the team that realised Paul Dibble's New Zealand memorial in London's Hyde Park.

"I'm interested in people and how people use space and how space can shape different things. I believe in architecture as a background art, not necessarily the focus or the foreground, more as a sort of framework for other moments."

Having been through older towns in Europe, he believes space is the key element, and the shape of the space. "The way the sunlight hits it is almost more important than the architecture itself. Architecture still has to be good to allow that."

Winwood worked in Genoa, Italy, for several months - "beautiful original cities, and the way they've evolved over time and are still functioning. Incredible layers of history. You learn a lot just living in a place like that."

Last year he worked on a major new building for Massey's College of Creative Arts and he is now concentrating on a design for a Christchurch chapel.

ANDREW BANKS, 27

Ideas of good, affordable and "dignified" housing, and the recycling of older places preoccupy Andrew Banks. They have all gelled in his work for Studio Pacific where he has been employed for more than three years.

Banks has been updating the half-century-old Wellington City Council's Newtown Park apartments. It's a huge complex, 205 apartments in five buildings. The work should be finished mid-year and many of the apartments are already complete and tenanted.

Banks calls the job "relifing". Seismic upgrading was paramount "and to meet the new kind of social housing demanded. They were originally designed for single, male workers. A lot of the upgrading has been about reconfiguring the building to cope with different demography."

The old complex might have looked rundown, he says, but it has "really good bones, reinforced concrete built to last".

Some of the small units - there were about 270 originally - have been joined in tandem with seismic upgrading to appeal to different groups. Inside, now fully ventilated, insulated and double glazed, there are new fittings and decoration.

This does not include new kitchens. The original solid rimu kitchen joinery has been refurbished. "We kept them. They're robust."

Outside, Banks worked with a landscape architect. "That's been really important. The journey from the car or bus stop to the front door is often what makes you feel happy about your house.

"It has really opened my eyes to the whole idea of affordable design and housing, particularly the recycling of old buildings, giving them longer life. The affordable-housing issue is a big problem that needs to be solved with some urgency, and architects can help solve that. Affordable design and the affordable-housing conundrum are really complex, with a whole range of issues.

"Other than this, I'm a big fan of Newtown. I live there, this project is there and I did my thesis on it." He designed an innovative new theatre. Newtown, he says, is a great example of city fringe housing.

He has, he says, been lucky working at Studio Pacific.

"You don't do architecture on your own and I'm lucky with my mentors. They've given me the confidence to make decisions."

CHRIS STEVENS, 25

Chris Stevens is hard at work at ArcHaus on his 25th birthday. What he has in the back of his mind is a grand plan of appropriately housing the country's baby boomers in their dotage.

Stevens graduated in architecture from Victoria University in 2010 and is working and studying for his masters degree. His thesis, influenced by his day-job experience with apartment buildings, looks at housing older people without the need for them to shift.

"When you go to university, you think your final thesis is what gets you the job. There are a lot of far-out schemes. I was interested in current issues - ageing baby boomers - so it didn't get me the job. I don't think I can exploit it at the moment. I'm doing commercial stuff, learning in real life how things function, and it's impacted my thesis."

He partially used his parents as guinea pigs for his ideas, or at least their situation, living in a large house that could possibly be divided into three for sale, rental income, or to allow them to stay and have a carer or relative live close by. In the broader world he envisages larger state housing units divided for older couples who want to stay put in smaller places.

"The housing stock New Zealand has is inadequate for this demographic," Stevens says.

For one thing, passages are usually too narrow for wheelchairs or Zimmer frames and "pretty much all the housing in New Zealand is raised and old people often need flat entrances".

"My thesis is how can we re-appropriate existing housing stock, retro-fit it, not just for old people but so that most people can live there comfortably.

"Another thing is the issue of retirement villages and how they ghetto-ise the elderly, in my opinion, by essentially grouping people of the same background - social homogeny. People can become quite isolated and the world outside can become quite scary."

Stevens was motivated to make architecture his career after he spent a year in Sweden as an exchange student. The "architectural trinkets" of buildings like the 500-year old house he lived in appealed, "the way they have their doorways 1.6 metres high. The reason was in the olden days that any marauding intruder had to duck to get in and you could chop their head off."

- The Dominion Post

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