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.