There's gold in these hills: Architecture of the self-built hut

William King

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Hero Image 2 William King

The proposed site for my project is on a 150-acre plot of land north of Colville Town in the Coromandel. The landscape of this site is formed through a series of rolling hillsides blanketed by varying layers of native bush.

Colville is home to several different communes, all established around the mid-1970s by groups of young intellectuals who left the city in search of a new way of living.

Our land is co-owned by nine people and houses a series of off-grid structures that were built from 1978 onwards by a group of young university students who left Wellington to experience communal living. 

This communal land was named Te Whanau Hou (A New Family). In 1984, my mother (Tria Peters) moved to Te Whanau Hou, where she raised my older brother and sisters. She purchased her share for $2,500. 

The original shareholders developed a unique set of philosophies that defined their way of living, and in turn, the architecture in which they built. This architecture style can be characterised most notably through the vast implementation of demolition materials, collected mostly from Auckland, in combination with native timber and a need for cheap, sustainability and passive living. 

These structures were designed to connect with the landscape in a way that bonds the inhabitants to their natural environment, and community. My thesis explores the history, and spirit of these people and the many other New Zealand owner-builders, through my own build of a full scale, low budget, low impact, unconsented 'experimental sculptural hut' for our family on Te Whanau Hou.

4 Wall Light Cast Bronze X Cast Glass William King
Wall light cast bronze X cast glass
5 Main Door Handles Cast Bronze William King
Main door handles cast bronze

The hut is not attempting to ‘speak’ of anything. It’s neither symbol nor metaphor, and I haven’t post-rationalised a conceptual starting point. It is about making for the joy of making. The process of building is an exploration of architecture, people, and place. The hut is honest because the hut is human.

In its simplest form, the hut has been about creating with my Dad. As the project has gone on, it has become about building with our community and continuing the long history of New Zealand self-built architecture.

The thesis explores how you can build a low-cost and low impact house today. It also asks how you can make that house your own. The hut, although simple in form, is rendered through a series of detailed pieces that push a high level of craft. Long live the owner-builder, the craftsman, and the hustler.



1 Subfloor Build William King
Subfloor build
5 Building Paper In The Wind William King
Building paper in the wind

The design of the hut changed regularly throughout the thesis. This was fundamental as it allowed me to change the design as I learnt more about making, the site, history and life. I quickly swapped treated timber for naturally resistant timber. Designs changed as I found new parts in skip-bins. Mistakes were rectified with more mistakes. 

The hut was predominantly built without building plans allowing me to free myself from the technical act of building. A wall section is pointless if you already know how the wall goes together. Of course, the hut was designed technically, but this was more of an act of exploration than the production of a step-by-step process. The hut is alive, it is forever changing, and its design acknowledges this. The continually evolving functions are only restricted by one door and two windows.


Finished Product

“Architects never finish their own houses.” 1

The hut is not finished. Some parts are sitting under a tarpaulin in the bush, some parts are yet to be purchased, some parts are yet to be designed, and some parts are yet to be thought of. The process of designing and building the hut is slow. The building does not have a start or a finish; it is a continuous process and story. As Ben Daly put it when referring to his own elegant shed: 

“It’s all gloriously, deliberately unfinished”.

Slow architecture is about growth, discovery and adventure. Through this process, slow architecture develops culture, place, stories and memories. Fast architecture is entirely different. The current Building Act requires the completion of all buildings to in less than two years. This process of construction has an enormous carbon footprint. It also produces a massive amount of waste. Old buildings that could be salvaged are destroyed because no one has the time.

Over time, the hut will be complemented by other structures on the site.

1 Watkins, “A 2020 Carbon-Neutral Vision.”

4 Composting Toilet Interior Cast Concrete Throne With Aluminium Light William King
Composting toilet interior cast concrete throne with aluminium light

Critic's Text

You can only learn so much from paper projects.  As students, most of you will probably have to wait until you are practising architects to get work built, so setting yourselves a challenge to build an unconsented 10m2 sculptural hut provides early knowledge and experience far outside the 'norm' for your thesis year.

With the result being far from 'normal', Will took advantage of co-owned family land where his brothers and sisters grew up, just north of Colville Town in the Coromandel, to continue the forgotten tradition of self-built architecture. With a tight budget and a year up his sleeve, Will designed and built a simple but elegant timber-framed hut. Prefabricated panels were assembled in the University's workshop, transported to site, and the hut was built in stages over the year with assistance from his father.

By focusing on craft, Will personalised the internal space to connect to the site's unique undulating landforms and thick manuka clad bush, all the while having minimal impact on the environment. The project offers stark contrasts and skills by combining low tech found and recycled materials with high tech computer fabricated fittings and fixtures. Custom-made fittings such as cast bronze pull handles, aluminium puddle pendant lights and an interlocking concrete long-drop composting toilet, transcend the project into the craft of architecture and the search for beauty that we all strive for as architects.

Hopefully, future self-build projects are more likely to become commonplace in future student thesis work due to ever-increasing land prices, expensive builder rates and the increasing cost of building materials, not to mention council fees for resource and building consents. Architects are continually balancing their risks and rewards, something that Will's thesis has successfully proven by his skill in problem-solving 1:1 construction details and his determination to complete his first built work. 

By taking on the project's risks himself, and becoming the builder and architect, Will's thesis project will hopefully inspire other students to undertake self-build architecture. It might not be finished, but that's the beauty of self-built projects. They never are.

— Matt Liggins, supervisor