Tiny homes for the homeless: Recycling Auckland’s old state houses

Thousands of state homes in Auckland’s Tāmaki region will make way for new builds over the next 20 years. A Māori business, a church and a government agency are stopping them from going to landfill.

On a drizzly morning in Auckland, an old brick-and-tile state house is being taken apart.

Apart from the banter and hum of six men working, the air is still on 5 Tuakiri St in the eastern suburb of Point England. There are no diggers on site.

“We start early in the morning, we have a toolbox, talk about what we do for the day, hazards for the day, controls we’ve got in place,” says John Kerr, team leader and owner of Safety 1st Removals.

“We’re all [rugby] league fans so we talk a bit of league, and then we start work.”

The work here is deconstruction, the process of dismantling buildings to recover as much material as possible for reuse or recycling.

Number 5 Tuakiri is one of 2500 state houses in Auckland’s Tāmaki region – made up of Point England, Panmure and Glen Innes – that will make way for 10,500 new builds over the next two decades as population growth intensifies the need for housing in New Zealand’s biggest city.

A pilot project is working to repurpose all 2500 of them.

Where possible, houses will be relocated and refurbished to healthy homes standards and given to community groups and other spaces as housing, says Tara Moala, the woman behind the project at Tāmaki Regeneration Company, an agency owned by the Government and Auckland Council.

If relocation is not suitable, the house is dismantled and the materials salvaged for reuse or recycling in the community, whether it’s wood, windows, doors, or door frames. Even appliances.

“Because they have to go, why not make some amazing things out of them?” Moala says.

Her team is working with Kainga Ora on the next phase of the pilot, which will see 20 homes repurposed, four of them for deconstruction.

“In theory we should be saving tons and tons of waste from being lost, repurposing it and bringing it back into our community so we can create social outcomes and also prevent landfill,” says Moala.

The plasterboard from the Tuakiri brick house cannot be salvaged because it’s painted, says Kerr, but the wooden doors and cabinetry are good and the bricks will be sent to a Tongan community group to be cleaned for resale.

“It’s demolition but smarter,” says Kerr. The 55-year-old has been in the business of tearing down houses for 15 years.

“Normally what happens is you get a couple of diggers on-site and a couple of guys and they just smash it down and it all goes to landfill.”

Construction and demolition waste make up 40 to 50 per cent of New Zealand’s waste going to landfill, according to research group Branz.

Kerr says his “thought pattern” changed about five years ago, when he made the switch to deconstruction.

“You know we’re Māori, we were taught about Papatūānuku (earth mother) and Ranginui (sky father). They call it the circular economy.”

This is Kerr’s third deconstruction for Tāmaki Regeneration. The first two were weatherboard homes, which turned out wood that has gone to Faith Family church in Panmure. The church is working with builders in the community to turn them into two tiny homes for the homeless.

“We’re calling them whare iti (tiny houses),”says senior pastor Carla Perese. The bigger plan is to build 10 to 15 tiny homes in a circle, creating a hapū (village) on the church property.

The Māori church with a tiny congregation of 20 has been providing transitional housing to people since 2004.

“We take people with mental health issues, straight out of prison, people who’ve been deported from Australia, who’ve suffered domestic violence,” says administrator Margaret Ngapera.

They currently have a flat and four cabins, and several rooms at the back of the church that were converted from offices. All of them are occupied.

“Last week we had a young mother and her daughter come up from Wellington. Then another Tongan family came the day before that, and I’m always getting calls to see if I’ve got any room,” says Perese.

“There’s still people living out on the street. The need is quite huge.”

What the whare iti will look like is a secret for now. “Everyone’s holding their plans and designs close to their chest,” Perese says, laughing.

“I can’t even tell you what it looks like. I just know that we’re getting loads of wood.”

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