Ākau:
designing futures in Kaikohe

Ana Heremaia and Te Teira Rakete. Image: Jonny Davis

Ākau: designing futures in Kaikohe

Three extraordinary women have taken their design and architecture skills and created a training programme for some of the country’s most vulnerable rangatahi.

Head north on state highway one, stopping for a sandwich among the bright and busy architecture of Kawakawa. Past Moerewa’s giant AFFCO meatworks, glowering on the edge of town like a taniwha guarding the village. Turn off at blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Ohaeawai and the gently curving roads eventually deliver you to Kaikohe.

Known as ‘the heart of Ngāpuhi’, Kaikohe in the centre of Northland is home to approximately 4000 people.

Just off the main street of Broadway, you’ll find an architecture studio with an extraordinary story.

Image: Ākau

Ākau is a social enterprise, meaning client fees from commercial projects and funding grants are utilised to create education programmes and technical workshops for youth in Northland. Ana Heremaia (Ngāitu) and co-founders Ruby Watson and Felicity Brenchley believe that thriving communities start with proud and engaged members. But Heremaia’s connections to Kaikohe runs deeper.

An interior architect with international experience working from London to Melbourne, Heremaia grew up in Christchurch. After her father became ill in 2012, she returned from London to be with her parents and to help her mum with the nursing process. Within three months, however, he was gone, and the family decided to take him home.

“My dad whakapapas to up here in Kaikohe,” says Heremaia, “So when he passed away as a whānau we went on a hīkoi and brought him up here to be buried. That was kind of my first connection with Northland.”

Heremaia moved to Melbourne, spending a year in an architectural firm, quietly discontented as she approached a decade in the industry. Within a year tragedy struck again and her mum fell terminally ill. She returned to New Zealand once more.

“I had been working in the design and architecture industry for about nine years by that point, and I just wasn’t completely happy doing that. I felt like something was missing. And I didn’t particularly like sitting behind a computer. I wanted to be out and meeting people and to have more of a purpose to my work.

“I was talking to mum while she was sick in bed about what I could do. I said I wasn’t happy and I wanted to do something with my design skills that could help a community. For me it was about connecting with my culture and my whakapapa but also finding my purpose and what I wanted to do. She introduced me to a friend of hers who lived up here.”

A year after burying her dad at the St Michael’s Anglican Church, site of the historic Ohaeawai Pā, Heremaia returned once more to bury her mum. This time, she decided to stay for good, settling on using her skills in social enterprise.

“Dad had a really tough upbringing, so I hadn’t really experienced any of Northland. So people were kind of like, ‘What the heck, why have you moved up there?’ Not many people are aware of the New Zealand above Auckland, that’s for sure. And neither was I, I was definitely this city girl moving to the country, so we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into eh.”

Ruby Watson, an architect and artist raised in Mahurangi, just north of Warkworth, worked with Heremaia in London and came onboard with the project almost instantly.

“Ana had been staying with me in Warkworth, and she came up with her bags and her guitar and her fancy city shoes, and she gets off the bus like ‘I’ll just catch a taxi to the place I’m going to stay’, and I was like ‘there’s no taxis in Northland, you can’t taxi.’ Sure enough she gets off the bus and gets laughed off the street when she asks for the local taxi in Kaikohe.”

Between May 2014 and January 2015, Ākau ran a pop-up shop on the high street. Even though Heremaia had whānau in Kaikohe, the group still felt like foreigners to an extent, and wanted to build a community connection. But in June of that year, the first six-month course was initiated in conjunction with NorthTec.

Watson says that while every student that goes through the programme may not become an architect or designer, the real benefit comes through the evolution of their thinking.

“We’ve experienced the design process and it’s really just problem solving, thinking through and coming up with design outcomes for whatever problem you face.

“We think if we introduce them to that skill, it’s something that can benefit them in whatever direction they take. It gives them skills around looking at the world around them differently. The way that the world is going with technology it’s even hard to judge what a job will be in five years’ time, so want to give them the skills to think creatively, but also the tangible outcome of the design and architecture program is the key to keeping them engaged. When you see something you’ve been involved in come to life you feel proud of yourself.”

Because cultural empowerment is a prerequisite for pride on a community scale, the workshops at Ākau are grounded in kaupapa Māori, and students work mostly on projects with applications in te ao Māori. In 2015, students designed a wooden stool based on the shape of traditional waka hoe [paddles], devising a method of assembly which didn’t require glue or nails. The stools were a hit, snapped up by private collectors as well as Sawmill Brewery for a new fit out.

The waka hoe (paddle) stool at Sawmill Brewery in Matakana. Image: Ākau

Watson says the success of the waka hoe stool was a double-edged sword and a steep learning curve for the fledgling start-up.

“Felicity, Ana and I were in a bit of a rebellious stage where we were trying to escape the architecture world. We wanted to do furniture or something a little less intense than full blown architecture, which we’d all become a bit jaded by. The stool was wonderful in that it was a prototype to test the market and to work with our young people. They designed the stool, it sold well… but all of the troubles that we were told would happen, kind of did. People who said they would buy it, didn’t. Getting New Zealand-made ply was near impossible, it was a nightmare. We wanted local people to make it but my husband ended up making them because he was better at it. New Zealand-made furniture has a very slim profit margin at best. It was a real palaver to get that right.

“The positives of course were that we got a lot of publicity and the young people we worked with were super stoked on it. They saw the process of design and working hard for something come to fruition. The went to the bar where their stools were – that was a huge success for us. We got in fancy magazines and things, that was nice. We’ll never do another piece of furniture though, we’re a little bit scarred by the process.”

The programme is now independent and no longer run out of NorthTec, and thanks to a Foundation North grant designed to help them find financial independence over five years, they’ve grown their staff to nine and readjusted the focus back to architecture. “We found that you can have huge community impact doing a design and architecture project as opposed to a furniture piece, if people are working in their own community. They’re going to see that for the rest of their lives, their kids and grandkids are going to see it. There’s far more impact in architecture than furniture, so that’s another lesson we learned through the paddle stool. That was really invaluable and changed the business model we now have.”

In the first module of the Ākau ‘Futures’ programme, students complete mini design briefs such as designing and building a bamboo waka, to help foster a trust environment and whanaungatanga with each other. Images: Ākau

One of the big successes has been Miria marae in neighbouring Waiomio, a tūpuna marae for Ngāpuhi hapū Ngāti Hine, which is now in the building consent phase. Ākau’s students lead the design project, going on site visits with “the client”, meeting with kuia and kaumātua to hear their stories and histories, and then coming up with a design through intensive workshopping with the Ākau architects. Watson describes the moment she saw their first sketch: “I remember coming into the office and seeing the sketch on the table and going ‘this is it!’” We couldn’t believe how wonderful the design was. It was something we never would have come up with on our own. It was so real and contextual.”

The rangatahi then presented their work at the marae AGM. “The clients loved it and approved the concept.”

Te Teira Rakete, one of 24 whānau living at his Kaikohe home, was the star pupil of the first Ākau course. He worked through the program, and gained entrance to AUT in Mt Albert. Another, Rekky Alexander, has stayed on as the youth intern at Ākau.

Asked if Heremaia intends to try and retain that talent, to establish a larger institution in the north, she says there’s no need – they come back on their own.

“People up here have a strong connection with whānau and home, so even if they do go away to get further education and some experience, there’s that pull that seems to bring them back. We think it’s awesome that people can go out, leave home – we all did it – and we came home again with new ideas and with expanded minds. I think that’s a really important part of a community growing – bringing new ideas home and grounding them, and yourself, again.”

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