Decades to build rammed earth house, but Watercare could wipe them off the map

Julian Pirie designed and built almost every facet of his home from the rammed earth walls to the hinges on his shed but all his work may be for nought with Watercare considering his section as a possible location for a new treatment plant.

Julian and Sue Pirie don’t do things by halves. Their rammed earth house on a picturesque 1.2ha site in Oratia has been in the planning for 30 years, and under construction for around 15 years.

And it has all been built by hand by Julian Pirie, who has not only built the rammed earth walls and formwork, but also built an enormous barn and the tools he needed – and every bespoke French door, ogee trim and marble lintel in the huge house.

The couple finally moved in last June only to discover several months later that they face losing the lot.

Sue and Julian Pirie are determined their hard work building this house by hand will not be wasted.

SIMON SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

Sue and Julian Pirie are determined their hard work building this house by hand will not be wasted.

Their property occupies one of four preferred sites that Watercare is considering as a replacement for its 90-year-old Huia Water Treatment Plant. If their Parker Road site is chosen, it won’t just be their labour of love that vanishes; 18 houses will be bowled under the Public Works Act, many of these recent builds in the same valley.

The rammed earth house, built by hand by Julian Pirie, would not look out of place in Italy.

BEVAN READ/FAIRFAX NZ

The rammed earth house, built by hand by Julian Pirie, would not look out of place in Italy.

While the locals say they have been led to believe this is the preferred site, Watercare says none is preferred. All its four options are estimated to cost about the same – $300+ million.

“We’re all horrified at the prospect,” Julian Pirie says. “A lot of people have taken it very, very emotionally and feel very, very threatened.”

Pirie is hopeful the preferred option will be a different block of land already owned by Watercare that currently features 50 years of regenerated forest, known as a vegetation overlay.

The house incorporates a tower near the main entry, which conceals services, such as the hot water cylinder and wetback ...

BEVAN READ/FAIRFAX NZ

The house incorporates a tower near the main entry, which conceals services, such as the hot water cylinder and wetback ducting.

 “When you balance some regrowth and no houses, with all these properties, some of which are quite recent, and this one that I’ve spent 15 years building, there’s no real choice to be made,” he says. “It’s obvious the social impact here is going to be enormous. We have to go through the process. It’s a painful one and I am confident it will turn out how it’s meant to.”

 

Pirie says the pair are soon to have a visit from a “social impact consultant” and will be happy to let them know where they stand on the matter.

Pirie, a former potter and 3D-designer with many years’ building experience, doubts his house will ever be finished, such are the plans still be put into action. As Sue Pirie says: “They can’t take Julian out of this home for a long time yet – he’s still got so much to do.”

His work to date is staggering. The house, designed partly on Palladian principles, features vast, soaring living spaces that are perfectly proportioned.

The house is frequently a gathering place for the extended family.

SIMON SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

The house is frequently a gathering place for the extended family.

Everything is on a grand scale – even the doors, handmade from totara, macrocarpa, redwood and lawson cypress are works of art. Pirie created a special aged patina on the massive hinges that allow the doors to fold back against the thick rammed earth walls. The eucalyptus saligna tongue-and-groove timber floors took five weeks to lay and three weeks to plug.

Most of the materials are local, including the coarse silt used for the rammed earth walls, which was quarried at Muriwai. And why use rammed earth? “The silt packs down to become beautiful sandstone, and I was sick of Gib board,” he says. “I wanted a solid material that could be sculpted.”

And just as the community is now rallying to save itself, so the community helped the Piries during the build, contributing a wide range of different services.

Julian Pirie spends many hours at the drawing board planning the next step.

BEVAN READ/FAIRFAX NZ

Julian Pirie spends many hours at the drawing board planning the next step.

The Piries’ house has also caught the attention of university lecturers. Several groups of university students have already visited the house as part of their studies into quantity surveying.

Mostly, however, Pirie wants the house to convey permanence. “I want it to be timeless,” he says, and he means it in every sense of the word.

“Those two massive rocks I recently put on the lawn are deliberate statements of permanence.”

The Piries are shown beside two favourite art pieces - the painting on the wall is by local Waitakere artist and friend ...

SIMON SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

The Piries are shown beside two favourite art pieces – the painting on the wall is by local Waitakere artist and friend Dean Buchanan and the artwork on the table is by Wei Lon Ha in the traditional Chinese landscape style – it depicts mist and waterfalls.

The couple’s concerns echo those of the community. Save Oratia spokesperson Chris Stone says, “It’s simply unbelievable that they’d even consider dumping an industrial monstrosity like this in the heart of such a beautiful valley with such a unique cultural heritage.

“We are committed to working constructively with Watercare and the Watercare Board to engage in a robust consultation process and reach a solution that doesn’t tear our unique community apart. And if that fails, we’re organised. We’re gathering a war chest and we are prepared to fight through all legal avenues for as long as it takes to protect the land of our great-great-grandfathers for the future of our grandchildren.”

Meanwhile Watercare says the project team is currently undertaking additional investigations on the short-listed sites and considering community feedback.

Oversize French doors, handcrafted by Pirie, open up to the kitchen, and to the outdoors.

BEVAN READ/FAIRFAX NZ

Oversize French doors, handcrafted by Pirie, open up to the kitchen, and to the outdoors.

“A final option is expected to be ready for Watercare management and board consideration by the end of June. Following that, it is planned that consultation is undertaken on the preferred option for a short period while the final assessment of environmental effects is finalised. Watercare expects to be ready to lodge applications for statutory approvals in the middle of 2017.”

The bathroom walls are lined with travertine slabs.

BEVAN READ/FAIRFAX NZ

The bathroom walls are lined with travertine slabs.

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