December 10, 2023

Architectural experiment tests seismic merits of ancient Māori building technique mīmiro

It could revolutionise the way we build and earthquake-proof marae using ancestral knowledge.

Technology from the 17th century used in making waka for sailing the Pacific is now being trialled in our disaster preparedness.

Seismic testing is being conducted in the Bay of Plenty this weekend to test the merits of the ancient Māori building technique of mīmiro.

It might not look quite like Grand Designs but if successful, this architectural experiment at the foothill of Te Urewera could revolutionise the way we build and earthquake-proof marae using ancestral knowledge.

“What we’re trying to do is to test this structure which is a type of construction technique which Māori were using before colonists arrived,” said University of Auckland School of Architecture and Planning Professor Anthony Hoete.

The University of Auckland and The Earthquake Commission have built a full-scale slice of Tānewhirinaki wharenui near Ōpōtiki which was destroyed in the 7.8 magnitude Napier earthquake in 1931.

They’re using a traditional Māori construction technique called mīmiro believed to have been in use until the 17th century to lash sails to masts. But this is the first time it’s been used to build a whare.

“This is mimicking earthquakes and seeing how mīmiro responds to that,” Prof Hoete said.

They’ve attached cables to the timber structure to create the tension to see just how the whare withstands the pressure.

“But we also test for sideways or lateral stiffness by pulling the building, literally pulling it, and we pull it using chain blocks and a Jeep,” Prof Hoete said. “Ultimately we’ll do a snap test and let the load go.”

The team want to make sure that knowledge is restored.

“That kind of technique of notching in would have required carving excellence as we see in Tānewhirinaki. Today it would be much easier today just to screw or nail so we’ve lost that knowledge,” Prof Hoete said.

And they have been working closely with local hapū on the project.

“To be sitting here and watching it take place this is awesome, awesome how our tipuna thought had no nails or things like that,” said Te Rua Rakuraku.

A pop-up whare of Tānewhirinaki wharenui was also made earlier this year. Carvings from the original building which were stored in a local garage for more than 90 years and have never been seen were finally on display.

“It’s going to mean a lot, especially for me,” one person said.

And after days of testing which were dogged by delays and bad weather the result they were looking for – proof that ancestral technology has stood the test of time.

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