History part 3

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History - continued from Part 2

Planning for Stage II 2003

By April 2003 we felt a little recharged, and thoughts moved towards starting Stage II in the spring. Most in the wider group were enthusiastic about carrying on, though there were some who just wanted to settle into their new homes, and even some who argued that we should stop now that we'd built 17 houses.

Robin was re-engaged as the Development Coordinator, and proceeded to coordinate the completion of construction drawings, building consents, financial feasibilities and building contracts for the next houses. A post-occupancy evaluation of the Stage I houses revealed substantial satisfaction with the design and only small adjustments were made to the plans.

We also reviewed and agreed on a new internal structure to reflect the fact that we now had two equal and different areas of concern; the construction of the remaining houses, and our fledgling community life. We set up a pair of teams, the Management Team to attend to issues involving membership and residents, and the Construction Team (CT) to manage and oversee construction. The Construction Team this time was a core of 4 people: Robin as Development Coordinator, Lippy Chalmers as Financial Coordinator, Gary Stewart and Bryan Pulham.

Our siteworks contractor in Stage I had been Alan Drayton Builders, natural house builders who had since developed their skills in rammed earth and were now in a position to take on the entire works. By August CT was working hard on development budgets, timeline, and construction prices. We made the decision to build the next 7 houses as Stage II(a). The money was again extremely challenging, but people were surprisingly upbeat, optimistic, and pulling together.

Our relationship with Waitakere City Council had grown to the point that we had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with them in July, recognising Earthsong as a partner in demonstrating today's and future practice for sustainable homes and communities. Late in the year WCC approved a $300,000 interest-free loan to help with building the common house, which would also be known as the Earthsong Centre for education in sustainability. This was fantastic news, and meant we could start working on other funding applications, and plan to build the common house as soon as Stage II(a) was completed. Things were moving again, and life was looking up.

Stage II(a) 2004

In January it was all on, builders were back on site, men, machinery, noise, dust, action... we were happy! The area to the south of Building E was transformed from a tumble of grass and old trees into bare clay, and gradually houses grew out of the wasteland. In March the ramming started - music to our ears!

This time we managed the construction without project managers, with the architect doing Contract Administration and Robin effectively managing and coordinating the project. Unforeseen difficulties did present themselves. This was a time of great change in the building industry, as the leaky homes problem throughout New Zealand had prompted a huge shake-up the industry and a tightening of codes and requirements. The council insisted that we follow the new updated requirements, which included the requirement for treated framing timber. We had avoided using any treatment up to then and didn't want to start. After much argument and months of effort, we finally got approval to use untreated Douglas Fir framing.

Several joint water monitoring projects with Council through their water body EcoWater were initiated, the largest of which involved 18 water meters being fitted in one of the new units to monitor water use. This and other meters provided monthly water use data for 4 years.

We also started working towards building the common house. We established the Earthsong Centre Trust as our educational body, started fundraising, and began to review the common house plans to make any changes required for an educational centre. There were ongoing discussions, goal-setting processes and some conflict in the group for the rest of the year about how to manage the community interface with the public, and how the dual use would work.

After a steady and generally smooth construction process, the 7 new houses of Stage II(a) were completed by the end of the year, and 7 more households moved in. Our community was growing!

Common House Construction 2005

After a brief pause in January, it was all on again with the next phase. We set up one of the new units as our temporary common house, "Tui2", for the next year. In early February Tui House was demolished. We saved the front "Tui" door to reuse in the common house. We salvaged the beautiful rimu framing to make tables and other furniture. The concrete block cladding was chewed up and spat into a pile of rubble to use as the basecourse on our driveway. Firewood was available for the surrounding neighbours, and there wasn't much left of Tui House!

One of our early members, Narelle George, died on 1st April after a year of illness. It was hard to lose someone we loved and who we had worked so closely with over such enormous and tumultuous years.

Work continued smoothly most of the year on the common house construction. In May the ASB Trust granted us $203,000 to help build the common house, which was a huge boost. However no further grants were expected, and we were short by about $300,000. By that time we were halfway through building it, and briefly considered whether we should stop building or not. The group decided to carry on with the construction anyway, and the difference was eventually paid by a levy on all owners. At one meeting one of our members Margaret expressed her worries and doubts about how we'd fund it, before saying "Then I remembered I'm at Earthsong, so of course we'll find a way to do it!" It so completely expressed the spirit of how we'd built this place!

In the middle of June the roof went on the common house. We had a roof shout for the builders, and the next night we hung fabric and ferns over the empty window holes, covered tables with cloths and candles, and had a candle-lit mid-winter dinner. It was very cold and the electricity wasn't connected, but we just glowed - this was our first dinner in our beautiful common house!

With the neighbourhood increasingly taking shape, we were starting to be recognised more and more as a flagship project for sustainable settlement. We won a couple of awards that year, the Auckland Regional Council Environment Award in July, and an award from the NZ Institute of Architects for the Year of the Built Environment in December.

Development work got increasingly busy again, setting up to build the last 8 units as Stage II(b), wrestling once again with budgets and costs, and oiling the common house in the weekends. By September we had a price from Alan Drayton for the construction, an indicative loan offer from the bank, and 5 serious buyers for Stage II(b). We started working bees to clear the last of the trees towards the front of site and set out the positions of the last buildings. The common house was nearing completion, and a digger reshaped the common green in preparation for final paths and paving.

By November the common house was very nearly finished, but at that very late stage we found a serious construction problem. Zinc flashing had been used to protect an internal timber plate at the base of the building. Over the space of several weeks it emerged that this was a bad choice of material, as it was incompatible with the concrete paving about to be laid against it, the cedar cladding above it, and most seriously, it trapped moisture against the timber. We were so close to having our beautiful common house finished, but couldn't complete the base detail or outside paving until this problem was resolved.

Stage II(b) got under way from November, with the builders gradually moving over to the new site as they completed the common house. Everything that could be finished in the common house was done by the end of December, while the architect, builder, and Development Coordinator struggled in site meetings to find a way through.

Stage II(b) 2006

Despite the unfinished items due to the zinc issue, Council were happy for residents to use the building in a limited capacity as our common house, but not for any kind of public use.

There was rubble outside all of the doors and no floor to the rotunda, but we all came together on 22nd January for a ritual of celebration of our long awaited common house. This claiming and inhabiting was hugely important emotionally to the whole group, to embrace and welcome the central place of our community, after all the long years of effort and challenge. It was not complete, but it was extraordinarily beautiful and we were awestruck that this was our place.

The first common meal was cooked that night by the Kitchenettes in our beautiful kitchen, a real arrival and claiming and making of home. There was still a lot to sort out, ongoing disagreement in the group over the shape of the common green and design of communal washing lines, whether to buy furniture and what that should be, but for now we were aligned in wonder and exhilaration at our common heart.

Progress was fast on Stage II(b). The Building H rammed earth walls had started before Christmas and were completed in January. The walls seemed rather softer and more crumbly on the surface than the last houses, however, and by late February concern was such that some tests were done. Significant porosity of the walls to water penetration was revealed. Construction once more ground to a halt while we considered what to do.

Further testing showed that the composition of the ramming earth had changed from earlier test samples, and no longer had the ideal range of particle sizes that had been designed for. A solution was agreed to add hoods to shelter the walls already rammed, and construction re-started. A new earth mix was tested and agreed for the upper walls. Amidst extremely serious and trying circumstances, relationships had remained good between the DC, builders, engineer and architect; we'd found a problem and worked out how to remedy it, and that felt good.

The zinc issue, however, was grinding slowly onward. The problem was particularly difficult to solve because the timber plate was set into the slab around the entire perimeter of the concrete floor to give some insulation to the slab, and the ground level needed to be close to the floor level for level-entry mobility-accessible thresholds to the many doors onto the terraces. The timber plate needed protecting from ground moisture, which had been the function of the zinc flashing.

Experts were called in to assess the situation, and all parties worked hard over the year to find a solution. The solution finally adopted in September was to replace the zinc flashing with stainless steel, and build a substantial channel outside all the doors, with timber decking over, in order to give a level-entry threshold as well as sufficient drainage and ventilation to protect the timber. The council were happy with this solution, and despite considerable extra cost, we were ready once more to move forward.

Meanwhile construction continued apace on Stage II(b), and by the end of the year the last 8 houses were completed and 8 more households moved in. We were finally up to our full complement of residents. It had been a huge and difficult year, but we'd got the houses finished and were ready to consolidate our community.

Completion 2007 - 08

We had sometimes talked about how things would be between the "old" members, who had worked for years planning and living through the joys and crises of the early development, and the "new" members, who bought the last houses and moved into an almost completed neighbourhood. There was some turbulence over the first year as the new residents settled in and found their place, but generally the "oldies" were just relieved to have a fresh influx of energy, and the "newbies" recognised and appreciated the strong culture and beautiful buildings. We looked again at our internal structures, now that development was almost finished and the balance of our attention had definitely shifted towards our ongoing community life. The community felt in good heart.

Work started in March on the repair of the common house flashings, the building of the new channel design outside the doors and the laying of the concrete paving. All was completed by mid year, and the common house construction was finally signed off by Council. Finally we could use this building as we intended, for tours and educational events, in line with our vision.

Residents were busy with working bees every second weekend for most of that year and some of the next. All of the landscaping except that requiring machinery had been removed from the budget in 2001 with our earlier contractor problems, which left members to complete the overland stormwater channels and other landscaping, a rather massive task. We spent weekend after weekend shaping the channels, concreting rocks against the bank of the channel beside the path, placing soil and planting over 90 metres of channel!! It was hard but enjoyable work, with a great sense of camaraderie and building something together.

By October the last sections of channel had been dug and work was underway preparing the driveway for its final surface. We had had a mountain of topsoil and clay on the front of site for several years, progressively stockpiled as successive building stages were stripped. Much of this was now repositioned to create an enormous "bund", a 3 metre high mound running the length of the site between the newest houses and the road, to give visual and sound protection to those houses. The rest of the clay was removed off site, finally revealing once more the natural ground level of the front of site, and taking another huge step towards the completion of the project.

In February 2008 the last big task of construction commenced, with the laying of permeable pavers and concrete to our carparks and driveway. The building supplies firm Stevensons donated $15,000 worth of permeable pavers for our carpark areas. Work proceeded much slower than we wanted, but in July the work was finally completed. After years of living on a construction site amidst mud and dust, and sharing the gravel driveway with trucks and diggers, residents were so excited by their beautiful driveway that their enthusiasm caused much amusement to their friends.

With the completion of the siteworks the last job was to apply for the release of the IA grant, granted in 2000. The development phase of Earthsong was complete, 9 years after we began to plan the construction in earnest, and 13 years after the birth of the project. Who would have thought, back in 1995, or back in 2000 when we started building, or even in 2004 or '05 or '06 that we'd still be building in 2008?

"When you're trying to change a culture, persistence pays off. You gotta be able to go the distance. In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture - because that is the true time horizon of effective action. You have to enjoy the people and the process, and you need the maturity to work in a longer time frame."

"The Cultural Creatives" by Paul Ray p.203.

Robin Allison September 2010