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An aerial shot of an island with several houses built on it
When it comes to building and construction, every project is different. However, a recent build on the rugged Chatham Islands has presented some particularly unique challenges. A remote location, harsh environment, and global pandemic have been major factors, but it’s been the logistics of getting materials and labourers over to the island that’s required the most effort. Fortunately, with the help of Bunnings and a resourceful local community, the build is now well under way.


Life on the island

Designed by architect Michael O’Sullivan from B/OS in Auckland, the Preece family home is being built by John and Bridget on their farm, which overlooks the main township of Waitangi. Chatham Island’s majestic landscape, volcanic plateau, and stunning central lagoon, make a beautiful setting, but the weather conditions can turn bitterly cold with ferocious winds during the winter months.

Isolated from the New Zealand mainland, it’s a tough environment and not for the faint of heart. When the weather turns, you can be forced to remain inside for weeks at a time. There’s no electricity, limited resources, and few home comforts, which means people living there have to be incredibly resilient and self-sufficient.

Every part of the land is rich in history and tied to the island’s original inhabitants, the Moriori people. There’s also a substantial Maori population and residual European elements. In Michael’s experience, “The people on the island are fantastic. Their attitude to life is insurmountable. They will make anything happen because they have to be incredibly resourceful.”

The island’s main industry is fishing, with farming and tourism also big contributors to the economy. Everything comes in and gets exported at the wharf in Waitangi with crayfish and pāua in hot demand from China.

About the home

Michael has loosely based the design for the Preece’s home on the iconic Queenslander. It’s where the veranda circumnavigates the building without posts around the perimeter, so that you can walk freely right around the home.

It’s quite a simple design, but needs to be incredibly robust due to the punishing marine environment. The home has been purpose built to withstand the harsh winds and damaging salt air, and specifically designed in a way that it can be packed down and reassembled on the Preece family farm. It’s all pre-fabricated in Auckland and sent over in a shipping container.

It’s similar to a project Michael oversaw at Raoul Island on the Kermadech Trench, but on a much smaller scale. “We flat-packed a stainless-steel steel hut, assembled and dry-fitted it in New Zealand, shipped it over, and assembled it on the island. But, the Chatham Island build is next level.”

Drawing on their resources

An extremely resourceful family, the Preece’s make their living from the family farm. Whilst creating a warm, nurturing home is the most important component of the build, it will also double as a workplace where John plans to run his crayfishing business with a workshop area outside for welding up his crayfish pots.

In addition, the family are building cabins on the property for tourist accommodation, which should prove very popular since Kiwis will need to holiday locally due to international travel restrictions. Plus, the farm boasts a quarry, which also generates a decent income.

With regards to building, it has so far been a combination of pulling together friends and family to make it work. It has made the project all the more interesting and rewarding for Michael, seeing a community come together for a common cause.

One of the Preece’s sons is a surveyor, a capable excavator, and pretty handy with tying steel together, the other installs roofs and cladding. Plus, their extended family have made a significant contribution by putting in the foundations.

Meeting the challenges

The context of building on a remote island has brought on many challenges. Besides the tyranny of distance, the island has no building suppliers or building professionals. All the components, personnel, and every conceivable tool or material need to be shipped over.

The home is also logistically bound to being assembled in New Zealand. It’s all then placed into a shipping container, loaded onto a boat, sent across the ocean, transported by truck up to the farm, and reassembled there.

In terms of the building process, Michael and his team have also had to factor in the island’s terse environment, accommodating for the extremely high 220km/hr winds, sea spray and massive swells.

With no electricity, generators have been shipped over to supply the building team with power. As such, tools and equipment need to be highly energy efficient, so that the building team don’t run out of power too quickly. As luck would have it, the farm location stretches into the sun, which is a big advantage in the Chatham Islands because you can generate more power for longer.

Then came the problems associated with the global pandemic. When lockdown restrictions were announced at the beginning of March, Michael and his teams had only one week to scramble together all the materials they needed and get them over to Chatham Island for the first pour. Michael says, “The guys at Bunnings made it happen, which was very impressive. It was a combination of timing and good management that got it all over there.”

The process

Getting materials and personnel over to such a remote location as Chatham Island requires thoroughness, care, and precision. When searching for a supplier, Michael chose Bunnings because of their close proximity to the port in Napier and their willingness to make it work.

As Michael puts it, “They’re geared up for dealing with big customers and have the buying power to get in whatever you need.” However, the Preece build has been quite challenging with organising the shipping of building materials across 1,000km of ocean.

Bunnings has been supplying all the tools and materials for the build. Trucks at the Auckland end drop it all off at Napier Port and it’s then shipped over to Chatham Island, craned onto a truck, and driven to the middle of the Preece’s farm.

At this stage of the build, the piles are in the ground, the steel is on its way, and the slab for the car port has been poured. Next the team will need to stand the steel up, and then the remaining materials will be shipped over from Napier.

According to Mike, “We’re working in a beautiful site with great clients and a genuinely positive, communal approach to the building process. It’s been a fantastic experience so far.”

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Photo credit: Chatham Island Waitangi by Vk2cz is licensed under CC by 3.0