Database to help resilience of wharenui

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A project is establishing a database of wharenui to help identify the possibility of creating seismic strengthening practices suitable for wharenui and their whānau as a part of developing the Earthquake-prone Buildings Act.

Figure 1: Whakapapa and research concept.

WHARENUI (meeting houses) are the most important structures on a marae. They are physical manifestations of tikanga (practices), mana (prestige) and whānau (family) and are specific to the hapū/iwi area of the wharenui.

Typically embodying a highly ranked tupuna (ancestor) of the iwi (tribe) or an atua (god), the wharenui, or large house, is the communal focal point of the marae, holding histories and connections for whānau who are living in or out of the motu (country).

Wharenui can be seen as a physical expression of whakapapa (genealogy), with each building embodying its own genealogical relationships. By understanding whakapapa, wharenui have shared identities and connections blurring the lines between past, present and future.

Amendment to Act regarding seismicity

While often seen as one of the last bastions of Māori culture, wharenui are now at risk of being further misunderstood and misrepresented due to revisions to the Building (Earthquake-prone Buildings) Amendment Act 2016, which came into effect in July 2017.

The new legislation formed a nationwide framework for assessing potential earthquake-prone buildings (EPBs) and a rating system % NBS or percentage of new building standard based on predicted seismic performance of existing buildings.

Under the Act, territorial authorities in New Zealand are liable for assessing and identifying EPBs and a building is deemed an EPB if it has a rating below 34% NBS.

The owner of an EPB must display notices of the building’s condition, contract professional engineers to undertake engineering assessments and rectify the hazard by retrofit or demolition of the building.

This amendment highlights the impact of new building standards that do not address or consider Māori building practices or tikanga considerations. It affects wharenui significantly and forces whānau to comply or risk losing their historical buildings. The financial requirements needed to undertake such structural renovations also need addressing.

Seismicity in te ao Māori worldview

Seismic safety is not a new notion to Māori, and over centuries of whenua (landscape) observations, wharenui were constructed to be structurally and thermally sound.

In Māori mythology, Rūaumoko is the atua of earthquakes, volcanoes and seasons. In some accounts, he is within the womb of his mother Papatūānuku, the Earth, and his movements and kicking generate earthquakes.

Te ao Māori acknowledges the environment as highly sacred and resourceful with natural disasters not necessarily seen as disasters but rather as tohu (signs) or messages from tūpuna.

Māori have an intimate connection to the land as seen in the commonly used whakataukī, ‘Ko au te whenua, te whenua ko au. I am the land, the land is me.’ Wairua (spiritual) connections to the land, environment and history are accounted for when Māori make changes to their buildings as renovations are not just physical – they change how knowledge is stored and transferred as well as the embodiment of ancestors of the wharenui.

Database of wharenui research project

Te whakapapa o ngā wharenui: A genealogy of Māori meeting houses is a research project undertaken by students at the School of Architecture and Faculty of Engineering at the University of Auckland with funding from QuakeCoRE.

The project stems from an earlier study Seismic retrofitting of Māori: Wharenui in Aotearoa New Zealand, which investigated the resilience of wharenui and their communities through interpretation of seismic, regulatory and historical frameworks.

The aim of the work is to form a whakapapa of wharenui in Aotearoa – a database of structural, architectural and cultural characteristics of wharenui that can assist whānau and the building community in understanding seismic resilience and renovations of wharenui (see Figure 1).

As there is no framework for architectural and engineering professionals to understand cultural implications when working with marae, it can lead to inadequate solutions for wharenui. The database will assist in identifying wharenui characteristics and seismic resilience specific to the region of the wharenui, while providing marae with type-specific and cost-effective options.

Figure 1: Whakapapa and research concept.

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Figure 1: Whakapapa and research concept.