A new way for Niue: Building cyclone-resistant sustainable architecture for the Pacific

Victoria University of Wellington Master of Architecture student Anthony Liuvaie Freddie is developing sustainable, cyclone-resistant architecture for Niue, making the most of important natural features on the island.

Concept of construction in Niue

He hopes this work will improve the country’s resilience, economy, and cultural sustainability and better prepare it for the impacts of climate change.

“I grew up in Niue, and I lived there during Cyclone Heta in 2004 which devastated the island,” Anthony says. “I saw all the damage, and I knew I wanted to do something to help.”

He began researching Niuean architecture and realised that while other Pacific nations had a history of architecture, there was almost no information available on the architecture of his home country.

“Unlike a typical Master’s project, there was no previous discourse in this area to build on,” Anthony says.  “I had to start from scratch.”

Anthony started looking at building techniques in areas that experienced similar disasters to the 2004 cyclone. He looked particularly at the use of bamboo in South East Asia to create sustainable buildings that flex in the wind, and at the planting of trees in coastal areas to minimise tsunami damage in Chile.

Next, Anthony travelled to Niue, where he completed site work and participatory research with the Niuean government and key stakeholders from the local community, including interviews with elders. The first hurdle came when they revealed that Niue had never developed any building techniques to create cyclone-resistant architecture. However, their knowledge still provided insights on Niue’s traditional building and architectural practices.

“Niue sits on top of a network of caves,” Anthony says. “In the past, whenever there was a cyclone, Niueans would shelter in the caves and then emerge after the storm to rebuild.”

Anthony also discovered an important natural feature of the island that he thought would make a useful starting point in the design of a cyclone-resistant structure.

“There’s a native tree that grows on Niue called the Ovava (Banyan) tree,” Anthony says. “After the cyclone, Ovava trees were still standing and thriving on the island, and during the cyclone people sought shelter and hid in the roots of the Ovava tree. Ovava is a tree that Niueans use as a binding material and to make traditional attire, so it’s a big part of life on Niue.”

Anthony used the Ovava tree as the core of his design for a cyclone-resistant building, and then incorporated the techniques he’d discovered during his research, such as the use of bamboo and using coastal trees to protect his chosen site from cyclone damage.

“Bamboo can be grown locally on Niue, so Niueans wouldn’t be reliant on imported materials,” Anthony says. “This would solve another huge problem, as current imported materials they have were one of the biggest causes of damage and loss of life during the cyclone.”

Anthony also incorporated traditional building techniques from other nations in the Pacific, like weaving and tying. Woven materials move and flex in the wind and don’t rip, making them a good choice for high wind areas.

“I didn’t realise how much Pacific people had already done in developing cyclone-resistant building techniques,” Anthony said. “I just had to look in the backyard.”

Anthony created several physical models in different styles, eventually building a scale model of a building that could act as a disaster evacuation centre and of a domestic dwelling.

“Creating physical models isn’t something I usually do,” Anthony says. “But I wanted to use the natural materials and traditional materials that would be used to create this building, so I chose to create physical models rather than digital models on a computer.”

Anthony used the Ovava tree as the basis for the structure and architectural look of the building, including fastening the building to the ground at several points to give the same stability as tree roots. The roof and walls were created from bamboo and other natural materials, woven together using traditional Pacific techniques. The roof of the building sloped downwards towards the ground, allowing cyclone wind to flow over the roof.

Anthony hopes to continue with this work, returning home to present the research and eventually building a life-size model of a house and centre based on his research. He also plans to publish more widely on Niue in general, sharing the extensive information he gathered from the elders on Niue. He hopes this work will have bigger implications for Niue and for other Pacific nations as well.

“As well as creating architecture that can withstand climate change, this project will also help build the Niuean economy and decrease reliance on foreign aid,” Anthony says. “Locals will be able to grow the materials used in these buildings on the island, which will create jobs and allow them to easily build and rebuild.

“It will be a big shift in their mindset to see this style of architecture adopted, as many people there think ‘West is best’, but this approach presents a good compromise between tradition and technology. I hope it will help Niue build a distinctive architectural identity.”