Skip navigation

Endangered Māori construction methods pass modern seismic testing demands

Architect and researcher Professor Anthony Hoete and his team have conclusively proven that endangered Māori construction techniques can withstand major earthquakes and will use this knowledge to rebuild a historic Bay of Plenty wharenui. 

Thanks to funding from Toka Tū Ake EQC, the team from the University of Auckland used the endangered construction knowledge called mīmiro to create a full-scale timber structure and successfully tested the prototype against earthquake requirements for modern buildings. 

Architect and researcher Professor Anthony Hoete pointing at the structure of the wharenui and explaining how he will earthquake test it.

Professor Anthony Hoete explains the testing.

“In fact, our seismic tests have demonstrated the structure can withstand much stronger earthquakes than the one that caused critical damage to the original wharenui in the Napier earthquake in 1931,” said an elated Hoete. 

The Auckland professor and Māori architectonic researcher Dr. Jeremy Treadwell designed and built the timber portals by using interlocking compression joints, instead of bolting parts together. At the same time, ropes were used to pull the structure to the ground like a tent.  

Click here to watch the seismic testing of the structure on YouTube.(external link) 

During the past weekend, Hoete’s team collaborated with the School of Engineering to pull the vertical portals sideways and test the horizontal strength of the structure, using a winch off Professor Jason Ingham’s jeep, while the vertical strength was tested using water weights.  

The project was awarded funding from Toka Tū Ake EQC to enhance the seismic resilience of the new wharenui and its community.  

“Toka Tū Ake EQC wants to create more resilient communities through the design and construction of stronger buildings, so Professor Hoete’s work aligns well with our goal to improve Aotearoa New Zealand’s resilience to natural hazards,” says Toka Tū Ake EQC Chief Resilience and Research Officer Dr Jo Horrocks.  

“Investing in Māori researchers and matauranga Maōri has been a key focus of this year’s biennial grants, so we are proud to be able to support this amazing project,” says Dr Horrocks.  

Aside from Toka Tū Ake EQC funding, the research is also supported by QuakeCoRE, the Centre of Research Excellence for seismic resilience, and the Endangered Wooden Architecture Programme at Oxford Brookes University.  

Hoete says the origins of mīmiro can be traced back to the ships and strong sail lashing his ancestors used to travel across the Pacific.   

Opotiki Prototype for testing

The prototype for the new whare before the testing.

“They had a deep knowledge of building and creating strength and tension in structures, so we have recreated those techniques that have been lost and use them to give our wharenui greater seismic resilience,” said Hoete, who extended the sailing connection by using modern sailing ropes and grinders to create the tension on the timber structure.. 

The team has been working closely with Ngāti lra o Waioweka, who built the original Tānewhirinaki wharenui on Opeke Marae near Opōtiki after the 1860 New Zealand Wars, only to witness its demise in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 1931.   

The most important carvings representing the iwi’s ancestors were saved from the wreckage and remarkably stored in a various sheds at the marae for nine decades. Three attempts to re-stand the whare in subsequent decades failed due to the loss of Matauranga ancestral knowledge how to reassemble the Tānewhirinaki.

Close-up of the grinders used to create tension on the timber structure.

Close-up of the grinders used to create tension on the timber structure.

Hoete says that the original timber had deteriorated over 90 years and would not be able to carry the loading of a new wharenui.  

“So instead, we will design a new structure that will act like an outer whare to which we will sensitively attach the original carvings to the inside of this new structure.”   

Hoete says that local hapū, Ngāti Ira, is integral to the project and many local community members assisted in the construction and testing this week.  

Riki Kurei, is the restoration project leader for the hapu, says Ngāti Ira is grateful for the support by the University of Auckland and Toka Tū Ake EQC to help his community restore their wharenui.  

“The original house was built in 1874, and inter-locking system at the time was unique compared to any other house in Aotearoa,” says Kurei.  

“The ultimate goal for us it to have it standing again in three to five years. That was the dream of our kaumatua since it was pulled down and we will make a reality for our hapu,” says Kurei, who adds that the hapu are actively looking for sponsors and support for the restoration and restanding of this unique historic wharenui. 

The project team have involved the entire hapu in the restauration project, through outreach events with local schools and the community, and Hoete feels the learnings from this project has the power to transform communities.  


Play video