Model Cit­i­zens

Pre-fabs? Dis­man­tling? A Welling­ton ar­chi­tec­tural firm are think­ing out­side the square.

Element - - Architecture - By John Walsh

Sus­tain­able de­sign is a term that’s of­ten ap­plied to ar­chi­tec­tural moves that are ei­ther to­tally un­ex­cep­tional – ori­ent­ing houses to­wards the sun, for ex­am­ple, and max­imis­ing nat­u­ral ven­ti­la­tion – or self-con­sciously ex­tra­or­di­nary – spec­i­fy­ing straw bale con­struc­tion, green roofs and self-com­post­ing toi­lets.

But be­tween the poles of what, in the sec­ond decade of the 21st cen­tury, should be com­mon­place and what is still weird or won­der­ful, there’s plenty of room for in­no­va­tive de­sign that makes ef­fi­cient and eco­nom­i­cal use of re­sources, that’s fit for pur­pose and not sur­plus to re­quire­ments, and that’s re­silient enough to en­dure over time or adapt over the years. Sus­tain­able de­sign, in other words.

Assem­bly Ar­chi­tects op­er­ates in this sus­tain­able ter­ri­tory. The young Welling­ton-based firm headed by hus­band and wife Justin and Louise Wright works across a de­sign spec­trum that ranges from fur­ni­ture to com­mer­cial build­ings, and new houses to marae al­ter­ations. Two char­ac­ter­is­tics in par­tic­u­lar dis­tin­guish the phi­los­o­phy of the prac­tice: a pro­nounced in­ter­est in ma­te­ri­als and the ways in which they are put to­gether and, even­tu­ally, taken apart, and a de­ter­mi­na­tion to rec­on­cile the be­spoke stan­dards of ar­chi­tec­ture with the mass pro­duc­tion meth­ods of pre-fabrication.

“Our prac­tice didn’t get its name by chance,” says Justin Wright. “You could say we have a strong predilec­tion to assem­bly, in both a con­struc­tion and a process sense. We like to work out the de­tails of how build­ings are put to­gether, and we also be­lieve in the im­por­tance of as­sem­bling the right teams to work on projects.”

While some ar­chi­tects might be con­tent to draw up a build­ing and leave the nuts-and-bolts tasks of its con­struc­tion well alone, Assem­bly Ar­chi­tects are keen to forge close re­la­tion­ships with fab­ri­ca­tors, engineers and builders. The prac­tice boldly goes where ar­chi­tects have learned to fear to tread – into the do­main of pre-fab­ri­cated con­struc­tion. The prac­tice has worked with Mata­mata-based mod­u­lar con­struc­tion spe­cial­ist, Stan­ley Group, on sev­eral projects, in­clud­ing so­phis­ti­cated pop-up stores in down­town Auck­land and the re­fur­bish­ment of a num­ber of marae build­ings in the cen­tral North Is­land.

“We’re in­ter­ested in the con­cept of suf­fi­ciency,” Wright says. “Pre­fab or mod­u­lar con­struc­tion elim­i­nates waste be­cause the de­sign has to in­cor­po­rate fac­tory-pro­duced el­e­ments with stan­dard di­men­sions. Build­ing this way is also rel­a­tively quick and easy – again, it’s re­ally a mat­ter of assem­bly.”

At the same time, Wright is keen to note that there is more to ar­chi­tec­ture than putting things to­gether and more to sus­tain­abil­ity than econ­omy and adapt­abil­ity.

“The most sus­tain­able build­ings are those that are go­ing to be around for a long time,” he says. “They’ll be around for a long time if peo­ple like them, and peo­ple will like them if they’re well de­signed.”

Left: Justin and Louise Wright. Photo: Mike Hey­don. Be­low: The pre-fab pop ups at Britomart. Photo: Jer­e­moth Toth Bot­tom: Welling­ton Zoo Hub. Picture Mike Hey­don

Bot­tom Left: Kakahi Marae de­sign pre­sen­ta­tion day. Photo: Assem­bly Ar­chi­tects.

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