Talking to Graeme North — Eco Architect, Matakana, NZ
On my travels I have found that the best way to meet local people is to talk to local people. When you've met one person then they can recommend another person and so a chain of introductions is created. When I visited Joe Polaischer of Rainbow Valley Farm, it happened that I was sent by a friend of mine to see him and so in turn he sent me to see a friend of his. Graeme North, the pre-eminent practitioner of eco-architecture in New Zealand, just happened to live down the road. Graeme has been building with rammed earth, mud brick, cob and hay bales for over 30 years in New Zealand. There are examples of his work all over the country and unbeknownst to me I had actually been staying in one of them. By a strange coincidence it turns out that Graeme had been a consultant on the building of Laura and Darren's straw bale house on Waiheke Island.Like Joe Polaischer, Graeme has been in the business of working with environmentally friendly materials for almost all his professional life. He is the leading exponent of earth building in New Zealand and is currently busier than ever with 20 to 30 different projects on the go in his studio. Graeme says that while he was studying architecture at Auckland University he was already interested in lo-tech building solutions - what was termed appropriate architecture. However he only began to understand the possibilities of working with earth when he received his first commission from a potter who wanted his house to reflect his love for natural materials. This was back in the early 1970s when he describes the architectural trend in New Zealand as a "post modern muddle".
Graeme was working on instinct. He knew no one else in New Zealand building with rammed earth so he took his inspiration from magazines and he researched other sustainable pioneers' work. He says the British architects Robert and Brenda Vale's book 'The Autonomous House' was very important. In 1989 Graeme received a small grant which enabled him to travel and visit other architects working along similar lines. This trip he says "saved him 10 years in research." The journey took him to Western Australia, California and New Mexico. He met like-minded people who he was able to share his ideas with and there was an "enormous generosity of information" that was made available to him. Further trips since then have helped Graeme to make more contacts, enabling him to continue developing his skills and knowledge of materials. He lists David Easton, and Bruce King in California, the Canadian John Straube and John and Sue Glassford in Australia as all being very influential.
Graeme says that many practitioners work with one system of green building whether that be rammed earth, mud brick or hay bales. He however is an advocate of all these methods and often in fact combines them in his designs, using whatever is suitable for the structure he is trying to build. He is particularly in favour of green roof systems and using unstabilised natural clays. In the photo below you can see an example of combined methods in his own house. He has used cordwood, firewood set in clay, lime mortar, bottles, old bricks, straw bale and cob all in one wall! Other home experiments include a conservatory on top of the living area where he is growing vines. I was particularly impressed by the hessian louvered ceiling in the house which when closed keeps the living area warm and cosy, but then can be opened to let in the air and light from the conservatory above.
Graeme explains that the New Zealand climate of driving rain, strong winds and the possibility of earth quakes make it a hard place to work with earth which is more naturally suited to the drier climates of Australia or New Mexico. However he has persevered and he worked with other architects on implementing Earth Building Standards in New Zealand. A project they thought would take six weeks took 15 years, but was finally published in 1998. It was the first attempt in New Zealand to regulate eco-architecture. While he believes progress is being made he thinks further environmental standards need to be put in place and that top down leadership is what's needed. He says "government cooperation is essential for fast change." Graeme's take on the current awareness of environmental problems is that people are more concerned about the "durability of their deck than the durability of the planet." Let's just hope that Graeme continues to build people's decks so that the two concerns go hand in hand. ::Graeme North