A Korero with Computation:
Expanding upon traditional Māori materials in architecture’s digital age.

Masters Thesis
Supervisor: Derek Kawiti
VUW School of Architecture


This research explores the relationship between digital fabrication and indigenous Māori materials. The availability of new technologies such as additive manufacturing poses a unique opportunity to build upon understandings of traditional Māori materials while contributing to Māori cultural identity and assets.

Working in conjunction with the iwi Ngāti Tukorehe, and their affiliated hapū on the site of Ōhau, this research explores local mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) in relation to digital architecture fabrication techniques. The project looks at the use of large-scale high-pressure injection grouting as a method for the creation of free-form subterranean structures. Freeform injection grouting could be used to mitigate coastal shoreline erosion for Kuku beach and provide shallow ground anchor foundation systems, excavatable post-disaster housing and pavilion structures. The ground material acts as a pressurised ‘scaffold’ and formwork for the creation of the subterranean structures that can then be exposed through the excavation of covering soils.

Free-form injection grouting requires specialist geotechnical knowledge of ground pressure and soil composition. Computational processes in RealFlow are used to provide near accurate simulations of the subterranean form-making process, providing an understanding of ground pressure/compaction, composite soils/particle size and injection pressure. The injection grouting technique was tested at various scales and focussed on the use of indigenous materials, including composites of local sand and pumice for the grout aggregate. Flax fibres were also used as internal reinforcing for the free-form structure. It was essential to the research that local materials were used as a means to connect to local understandings and customs around indigenous Māori design practices relating to place and the people of Ngāti Tukorehe.

Physical Context

Ngāti Tukorehe’s rohe (tribal domain) on the Kāpiti coast is comprised of a network of sand dunes. Their rohe extends along the western coast from the Tararua Ranges across to the coastline between the Ōhau and Waikawa Rivers. It is within this context that the research sought to explore two processes of freeform injection grouting termed ‘soft forming’ and ‘hard forming’ by the wider research group. Both methods are defined by the specific pressures they entail; ‘soft’ pertained to loose aerated soils, and ‘hard’ was used to describe undisturbed compacted ground.

Soft forming

This soft forming series looked at how to emulate Māori ideas of weaving and curved structures to inform the form finding process. Māori structures can be some of the most refined and sophisticated but also some of the most beautiful and sculptural. Emulating woven and curved forms allowed for exploration into the types of complexities and designed outcomes that could emerge using the soft forming technique.

3D printed columns

The 3D printed columns explore the translation of an abstract computational process into a 3D digital geometry then into a physical 3D printed form. The purpose of this is to emphasise the sculptural and formal properties that could be produced with a multi-agent algorithm. An architectural element of a column is used as a testing ground for these design ideas.

Addative manufacturing tool

The design was based on existing injection grouting systems used in the construction industry. Injection grouting is used in the construction industry for levelling or strengthening of building foundations and structural walls. By contrast, this additive manufacturing tool is used to create highly controlled free-form structures.

Hard Forming

Hard forming investigated the potential to directly inject a binding material into the ground without the need for PVC pipes, instead relying on the ground composition and pressure of injection to inform the structure. Hard forming requires a technical understanding of ground pressure and composition. Following injection, the sand surrounding the structure was excavated like an artefact to reveal the geometry created by the injection process.

Material Domains

This stage investigated how the introduction of natural materials found in Ngāti Tukorehe’s rohe builds upon the formal and material potentials of previous design enquiries. It also explores how the use of local materials could help reconnect Tukorehe with their material landscape. To begin testing, a matrix of different material compositions was created from raw materials, excavated or found in Tukorehe’s rohe, to processed cementitious substances. The materials used from Tukorehe’s rohe were sand, clay, pumice and harakeke. Colouration was introduced for aesthetic quality and to add meaning to the process.

Pavilion Design

This stage shows the potential on-site application of the techniques researched, and how they could be used to connect Ngāti Tukorehe with their material domain. The pavilion design process explored how different digital design tools such as 3D scanning, animation in Maya and particle simulations in RealFlow could build upon the knowledge previously established in this research, to design and fabricate a pavilion for Ngāti Tukorehe.

The programme of the pavilion is a whitebaiting shelter. The shelter would function as a monitoring station for whitebait and tuna, significant resources for Tukorehe. In light of the nationwide endangerment of these species, Tukorehe was concerned about the dwindling numbers of these fish in the Waikawa, the river near which the site is located. The site also benefits from its proximity to sites relevant to Tukorehe's material landscape; in the north was a pā harakeke and the Okaka ridge and to the west, historical dunes and Te Hakere wetland.

Tyler Harlen 2019