The Living Pā – Building in pursuit of Kaitiakitanga

The Living Pā is the bold redevelopment of Te Herenga Waka Marae, on Kelburn Parade at Victoria University of Wellington, into one of the world’s most environmentally responsible hubs.

Responsive to Māori dreams, the Pā will stand as proof of Māori beliefs, values and passions, and guide many thousands of people to reconnect to their whakapapa (relationship) with nature.

The 3000sqm project will extend the marae’s capacity to bring people together to learn, live and share a sustainable future. It will be a space not just for the University, its staff and students, but for the wider community.


The purpose of Victoria University of Wellington’s Living Pā project is to raise the view of what is possible – in design, construction, education and life. The project has found alignment between the Māori values it encompasses and the performance-based challenge of the International Living Futures Institutes® Living Building Challenge® (LBC) programme. The project is targeting Living Building certification under the LBC framework which requires the pā to be net positive in energy, carbon, water, and waste, and demonstrably give back to the local ecology and community.

The International Living Futures Institutes runs 5 escalating certification paths: ‘Carbon Neutral’, ‘Zero Energy’, ‘CORE’, ‘Petal Certification’ and the summit of holistic regenerative building, ‘Living’.

Project Sponsor, Professor Rawinia Higgins (Ngāi Tūhoe), Deputy Vice-Chancellor Māori at the University, chose the challenge largely to build a facility complementary to the adjacent wharenui, Te Tumu Herenga Waka, and to advance thinking about sustainability and the needs of future generations. She acknowledges this pushes the team into a space which can be quite difficult.

Rhonda Thomson (Ngāi Tahu), Pou Hāpai and Co-Project Manager, reflects that this project directs everybody involved to:

  • centre Papatūānuku and a relational approach with te taiao (the natural world)
  • intentionally apply innovation and advance benchmark practices
  • tackle intersecting and difficult problems, such as the changing climate, by thinking about them in the context of their system – the interacting elements, big or small, such as people and community, equity and inclusion, history, ecosystem, tikanga, and economic models
  • create and advocate for change.

The use of te ao Māori principles is key to the project, both during build and into its future. These principles are the foundations of Māori culture and provide valuable insights to help guide and protect everyone involved. The principles highlight cultural identity, cultural understanding for Māori and non-Māori communities, and sustainability.

The project is under construction:

Features: Inclusive of all iwi, this university-based marae incorporates an existing whare whakairo (carved meeting house). It will substantially increase marae engagement and teaching spaces. The redevelopment is a new 3000 square metre mid-rise build featuring a low damage engineered timber structure, 202 photovoltaic array (PV), a highly technical closed loop 3-waters system, ethnobotanical planting plan.

Site: High-profile 980sqm urban, mixed-use site on steep excavated land. The building sits on an inconsistent geological foundation and is adjacent to several multi-storey institutional buildings that restrict solar access. The street is a major hub of arrival and departure from the campus, and a major access route to the city.


The decision to use the Living Building Challenge framework is intended to raise the bar of what is possible in design and construction, building occupancy, and life. It holds those involved to circularity, modes of continuous improvement, and requires a high degree of client, design, consultant, and contractor and sub-contractor integration. The client embraced the Living Building Challenge as it aligns with a whakapapa relational approach to community and the natural world.

The building is a 3-storied, timber mega structure. It has a transparent ground floor to enable connection from the street through to Te Tumu Herenga Waka, the ornately carved wharenui, which was previously tucked away behind other houses. The timber mega structure allows openness through the building which includes an engagement space on the ground floor, teaching, student support and seminar spaces on the second level, and a top floor for staff offices. The design uses circulation spaces to bring daylight into the building and help with natural ventilation. The building will be able to generate its own electricity and collect its own rainwater. It is designed to leave the place, community and ecology where it is built in a better condition than it was before. 

Situated at the headwaters of the Kumutoto stream, which was culverted in 1866, the project will open up and make visible about 25 metres of the stream’s waters. Changes to the stream’s flow in different seasons will highlight and share the special story of wai (water) and the surrounding area.

The team involved in building this project, alongside Te Herenga Waka Marae and Victoria University of Wellington, include Rider Levett Bucknall, Tennent Brown Architects, Dunning Thornton Consultants, 335 Building System Engineers, Wraight and Associates, The Building Intelligence Group, Oculus, Morphum Environmental, Holmes Fire, Protech, and L.T. McGuinness.

A number of the team have been involved in previous Living Building Challenge projects, but the physically constrained urban setting, geological constraints and scale of this project have extended their knowledge and experience. The architect, Ewan Brown of Tennent Brown Architects, has been involved in the Living Building Challenge for around 10 years. This is his fifth LBC project but this is one which he feels is really “pushing the market”.


The construction of the Living Pā recognises the need for solutions that are achievable, accessible and without hidden social, cultural, economic, and environmental costs. It embeds the founding principles of the marae, Te Herenga Waka (the gathering of canoes), in a tangible way through the process of its build and future operations. The client’s goal has been to work within and across multiple systems to centre kaitiakitanga (guardianship) as a value that is not to be compromised.

Kaitiakitanga – Taking responsibility

Kaitiakitanga and taking responsibly are notions central to the purpose of the Living Pā. Kaitiakitanga means guardianship and it requires Māori to protect and nurture the environment which, in turn, will protect and nurture the people. Inherent in this approach is an understanding that sustainability is not a goal, it is a process.

As an example, Living Building certification requires the project team to screen all products down to their chemical composition, and ensure that nothing in the building leaches toxins that pose risk to human health or the greater ecosystem. There is also a requirement to support local economy product and labour sourcing, and local waste diversion projects.

For the team, the Living Pā project is a vehicle for changing mindsets and practice. It has prompted the team to consider how to be inclusive, and how to consider the needs, and look after, tangata (people) and whenua (land). The belief in kaitiakitanga underpins the entire process.

Mā te taiao, ka kōrero – The Living Building Challenge

The Living Pā is one of the largest-scale buildings to work towards Living Building certification. This comes with many firsts for Aotearoa, each bringing a unique suite of challenges. It is the first mass timber building to target the Living Building Challenge, and the first mass timber building undertaken by the contractor. It is one of only a few mass timber buildings in Aotearoa.

One distinguishing feature of Living Building projects is the holistic framework. This means that the pā must achieve something significantly good across a range of 7 performance categories (LBC calls them petals) and 20 imperatives, each with their own sub-imperatives. The 7 performance areas are energy, water, materials, equity, beauty, health and happiness. The imperatives interweave in many ways and these interrelationships, and what they mean to community and the environment, are integral to the framework. 

Marae and University leadership were attracted to the LBC programme because it is a legitimate attempt to raise the bar in the way we build, teach, learn and live. For the design and construction team, the motivation is genuine sector change. The LBC framework forces action, and in doing so it drives the market forward by showing what is possible in creating a regenerative building.

Building better

The building is clad with a timber façade and includes planter boxes which provide shading where required and help connect the building and occupants to the external environment. The building uses stack ventilation processes, and has a rooftop completely covered in PV panels to generate the energy required to meet 105% (including resilience) of the building’s needs.

The building also incorporates an intricate water system which collects water from the roof, has evapotranspiration from the planters, and a complex tank wastewater treatment plant including a membrane bioreactor system to manage black and grey water. This system includes tanks underground that collect roof water, collect and treat grey water for vacuum flushing toilets and provides water for nearby buildings. The build requires a minimum of 90% waste diversion from landfill, consisting of 100% from soil and biomass, 99% paper and waste, 95% carpet and insulation, and 90% everything else.

Integrated design and early contractor involvement

To deal with the inherent complexities in LBC, the project used both an integrated design process (IDP) and early contractor involvement. Integrated design means that a project is designed through a collaborative process that involves stakeholders from across the value chain from the very beginning. IDP considers the architecture, engineering and building inputs of construction as a whole system. It seeks to increase input and discussion at the planning and design phases, with decisions made jointly by participants. The IDP system is iterative and considers the connections between the various disciplines.

The consenting and construction phase is highly integrated within an LBC project and demands significant commitment and resource to resolve complex interdependencies that depart from typical linear construction procurement processes. Not only are the constraints tight, but the framework requires all parties to advocate for change in a rigorous, evidence-based way. All aspects of the project, from initiation to design, to construction and post occupancy maintenance, require change management practices to be adopted.

Outcomes and benefits

Akoranga – Making the process a learning opportunity

The baseline assumption is that nobody will come to this project with all the required knowledge. For example, Tennent Brown Architects, Dunning Thornton Consultants, and 335 Building System and Engineers had existing Living Building Challenge experience, however, the requirements of each LBC project provide further opportunities to learn.

Ako means to learn and to teach, and there is no hierarchy. The teacher can become the learner, the learner can become the teacher. The Living Pā project seeks to embody this. For example, the design and construction team have learnt more about the life cycle of materials and waste in a construction project, and how to combine different forms of engineered timber together for seismic resilience and manufacturing efficiency. The whole team has learnt more about Māori and LBC philosophies and regenerative practices.

Ako is being played out at multiple levels in this project with the learners becoming the teachers, the teachers becoming the learners, the specialist becoming the learner, and the building becoming the teacher.

Research dimension

The University, as client and developer, has added a research dimension to the project, thinking about the lessons that can be shared, and how to provide opportunities for others to understand what regenerative building processes are about. It is considering how to help normalise new ideas around these processes, and centre mātauranga Māori as a way to articulate this in a holistic way. It is developing educational resources to share the story of the project so that others, in particular Māori organisations, can learn from what worked, and what didn't.

Contractor training and engagement

The LBC capability mission of LT McGuinness, the main contractor, expanded to include their subcontractors and suppliers. LT McGuinness rolled out an impressive range of training and incentives including:

  • waste and LBC reward initiatives
  • te reo Māori signage and learning opportunities
  • student breakfasts
  • product displays
  • a broader community outcomes plan. 

LT McGuinness also collaborated with the project’s sponsoring team, the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Māori, to co-produce a series of site induction videos:

The health and safety videos include 4 languages, reflecting the project’s equity imperatives and the real diversity in communities and workforces. The videos stress the importance of following standards, but also include another layer where the presenters (client, project leads, carpenters, subcontractors, apprentices) demonstrate pride in their work, genuine care for their work mates, passion for the whenua, and love for their families. They make connections between the job and the things that are most important.  

Project team culture

Prioritising project culture and buy in, Tennent Brown Architects, LT McGuinness and Te Herenga Waka staff also host 3-hour induction sessions for subcontractors and specialist trades. Everyone shares a simple breakfast, before learning about Te Herenga Waka Marae and the LBC’s values and philosophies, the vision for the Living Pā, LBC precedents, and what the stringent LBC requirements mean for each person on site. Feedback on the sessions has been resoundingly positive and afterwards, participants say they now understand why they have been asked ‘funny’ questions about recycling plans, the chemical make-up of glue, where galvanised bolts come from, and does anyone want to take home timber offcuts.

Creating awareness and pushing for change

Every material and element of the building had to be researched against the Red List®, a comprehensive list of material, chemicals and elements prohibited by the LBC. This allows in-depth knowledge of what is in the building, but also adds an additional layer of work to the build in terms of research and design. One of the biggest challenges has been managing any cost-premium, and trying to find suitable materials and projects like the pā are designed to help push suppliers and the industry to become more sustainable.

Those involved in the project have increased their awareness of what is in the materials and components being used and have started to advocate for toxin-free products from suppliers. In addition, pushing suppliers to provide data about the materials used can be a motivator for change in future projects. The team has also begun to measure carbon in the building and hope it will be an impetus for the industry to work on carbon data.

Lessons learned

Increasing knowledge

Rhonda noted that, “in some sense, the secret ingredient [of the project] is ultimately in the human spirit. Our commitment as Māori to protect and nurture our whakapapa, and achieve Living Building certification, the summit of regenerative building, are because we want to be better humans.” The LBC framework calls for bravery in picking up the environmental costs and externalities that conventional models and projects neglect. James McClean, Project Manager, LT McGuinness hopes that the company and the subcontractors involved will take away the lessons they learned particularly in terms of waste diversion and chemicals in materials.

Building to LBC standards

There is a considerable gap between building to New Zealand’s Building Code and meeting the Living Building Challenge Certification. The design and construction team was experienced in this space, and were aware of many of the challenges, but over time the team gained a deeper appreciation for secondary dimension of the LBC, ‘to demonstrably advocate for good’. The Living Pā is currently around halfway through its construction phase, and while there are still challenges, the team is already thinking about how they can make building for a regenerative future more normal.

In some respects, the project is similar to a previous Beacon, Pā Reo, at Te Wānanga o Raukawa in Ōtaki, which also incorporating Living Building Challenge principles. In applying the same regenerative building system, the 2 projects have similarities, however, the buildings, their landscape and their situation are very different.

Whanaungatanga – Bringing people with you

Whanaungatanga is about having the ability to connect and form relationships with others. Its root word, whānau, means family. The intention is to invite everybody involved in the marae-based project to work together and relate to each other based on collective, rather than individual, needs.

Complex Living Certification requirements, and difficult site conditions and market forces created significant challenges to test everyone involved in the project, including decision-makers, the design and construction team, subcontractors, and suppliers. These challenges could have had serious knock-on effects on the programme, but this has been mitigated by strong governance, high trust contract arrangements, and multiple communication channels.

In addition, the project included another layer, less typically acknowledged in a construction project but central to Māori thinking; the creation of shared experiences and memories. Connecting people to a shared belief system and vision, and a pride and love in what they are doing creates a culture willing to have the hard conversations and take the extra step to achieve desired outcomes. In a genuinely complex project like the Living Pā, tensions are inevitable. The team isn’t required to be united in all views, all of the time. However, it is important that issues can be worked through to mutually satisfactory solutions that are pono (true) to the project’s vision and core principles. Whanaungatanga helps to sustain the team through the difficult times to come out stronger and wiser.