A triumph of collaboration

Words by Nick Walker
Patrick Reynolds Patrick Reynolds

The New Plymouth Airport terminal, dubbed Te Hono, was finished in March 2020. Such is the timing of its completion that it never really had the unveiling anyone had hoped. Nick Walker looks at how the people behind the build came together in a unique and iconic collaboration that tells the story of a region and its people.

Gaye Batty remembers things being a little prickly when the team behind the New Plymouth airport terminal build first came together.

A project director from New Plymouth District Council, Batty joined NPDC colleague Anthony Wilson, Beca project manager Matt Low and architect Campbell Craig, and representatives from Puketapu hapū, Fern Brand and Rangi Kipa as the key collaborators on the project.

“It wasn’t easy at that point,” Batty says. “There was still a lot of hurt among the hapū over how the land at the airport had been taken.”

That was in 2016, but fast-forward to today and such is the positivity and satisfaction among all parties, that you never would have known it was a tricky start.

In fact, they all glow with pride at the way in which they came together to produce such an iconic build on time and on budget.

As much as the construction of Te Hono has been a resounding success, the process around the build is perhaps equally as significant. 

The background

The land around the airport is the very land upon which the Puketapu hapū was founded 1,000 years ago. It was confiscated by the Crown in the 1800’s, along with large swathes of Taranaki. 

Puketapu was able to use the land in various ways up until 1960, when it was transformed into an airport under the Public Works Act.

Fern Brand says that land is the heart and soul of the hapū, and losing it, along with the rich history Puketapu has there, was an immense blow.

“The owners of this land have been invisible on their own landscape for the last 140 years,” says Rangi Kipa.

“It’s problematic for the average person to comprehend what that might actually mean, to be invisible in your landscape, but it’s a normal phenomenon in colonisation.”

This phenomenon meant that all parties had some initial work to do so that they could see eye to eye. This refers not only to the individuals behind the construction project, but the way in which they’d run the build.

“It was unfamiliar territory for us too,” says Matt Low. 

“Traditionally a lot of iwi consultation is a bit of a tick-box exercise, and they’re not directly involved. To have Puketapu amongst the project team, it took time for everyone to figure out how it was going to work.”

That ‘how’ ended up being through a process of co-design rather than the more common consultation.

Under a consultation, the designer – in this case Beca – would ask a party for their input, then go away and consider which aspects of that input to apply. The party being consulted doesn’t have any say in what is and isn’t adopted in the final product.

As a co-design process, all key stakeholders contributed to every aspect of the build as equals, and remained at the table from beginning to end to come up with solutions that satisfied everyone. 

In terms of bringing people together, the process worked. The respectful relationships developed during the design process formed the basis of a project charter that outlined the way people would work together during the construction of the terminal. Rather than just being a pie-in-the-sky ideal, it was always adhered to. 

That doesn’t mean it was easy though, especially in the beginning.

“We had to keep referring back to that charter and the relationship agreement we had together,” says Fern Brand. “There was a matter of differing interpretations of key concepts such as co-design, consistent communication, and transparency.

“It took a little trial and error to get beyond the show-and-tell format to genuinely developing the concepts together. But we did it.”

“Once we got two thirds of the way through the development of the design, we no longer felt we had to justify why we were there,” Kipa reflects.

“Beca and the Council went out of their way to make sure we could be involved in every part of the project that we wanted to be involved in, because they could see the value.” 

The co-design approach enabled Kipa and Brand to incorporate Puketapu’s narrative into the building form itself, rather than just being hosted by the terminal. 

“Because the Puketapu representatives were in the team and sat through meetings about structures, geotech, drainage etc., they were across everything as it progressed. The feedback loop was continual,” adds Low.

“At the end, everyone knew what they were getting because they’d all been involved throughout the design. Having those people involved in the design team takes buy-in from the client, consultant and whoever else is involved in the design process.”

Beginning the build

Built in the 1960s, the old New Plymouth terminal was designed to cater for 50,000 passengers a year. 

The city had less than half the population it does now, and NAC was the national domestic airline. The terminal was made to be a functional building, and didn’t have much beyond what was necessary for it to do its job. 

“Before Covid there were almost half a million passengers a year going through the airport. Like the region, that number was only growing,” says Gaye Batty. “Clearly it was time for an expansion.”

The construction process started in 2013 when Beca won the Airport Master Plan tender, which also included conceptual design of an expansion of the existing terminal.

The designers worked through up to five different stages of construction that allowed for the terminal remaining operational throughout. However, Batty says that was just a band-aid design solution, for which there had been very little consultation with Puketapu.

The decision was made to engage with the hapū more, so Brand and Kipa were brought into the design team to provide a stronger voice from mana whenua. They worked with Beca’s Matt Low and Campbell Craig to come up with four different design options, which ranged from a purely functional expansion of the existing building to a more distinctive, future-focused new build.

These options were put to NPDC in 2016. Councillors opted for the design team’s preferred option; the iconic, though most expensive design, much to the delight of Gaye Batty.

“Council went with the aspirational build.”

A terminal that tells a story

Rangi Kipa was central to the storytelling aspect of the terminal. An international multimedia artist, he is an expert in both traditional and contemporary techniques using materials such as solid surface, tā moko and whale bone.

The terminal as a whole is designed to pay homage to the foundation story of local iwi Te Ati Awa and Puketapu hapū, as well as the sacrifices the community has made over the years. 

The narrative tells of Tamarau, who descended from the heavens after being captivated by the beauty of the earthly being of Rongo-ue-roa. Their union gave birth to a son named Awanui-a-rangi, the eponymous ancestor of Te Ati Awa.

That story is told across the many different aspects of the building itself.

The two roofs intersect to represent the founding tupuna, or ancestors. The higher roofline is Tamarau, nurturing the lower roof, Rongo-ue-roa.

The terminal follows the traditional Puketapu trail from Mount Taranaki to the fishing grounds at the mouth of the Waiongana Stream. In fact, the original walking track runs right through the heart of the terminal’s main concourse.

The angle of the building capitalises on mountain views, and even the colours of the designs have been chosen to acknowledge part of the local and ancestral history.

The yellow used on the high parts and eastern side of the terminal personifies Tamarau, who descended from the heavens/sun. 

The purple at the arrival and departure gates personifies Rongo-ue-roa, and everyone who goes through those gates passes under her mantle. Kipa says the colour was taken from the flower of the native Napuka hebe species that is endemic to the site, and was noted by his ancestors as they sailed along the coast looking for somewhere to settle.

Kipa even found a parallel with the nature of the airport terminal. The rising roof line from west to east echoes the idea of elevation, which also comes from Tamarau. 

“The whole narrative of our creation story is the same as the function of the airport,” Kipa says. “The idea of our loved ones coming in from the air and departing, that’s where the narratives align.”

Designers were also cognisant that it couldn’t all be about artistic expression. They were designing an airport after all, and it needed to be fit for purpose and adaptable to future growth.

While the old terminal was designed to be functional, it did have limitations, such as having both arriving and departing passengers coming in and out of the same door. With the changing needs in aviation security, it was a key requirement that inbound and outbound passengers be separated.

Matt Low says Te Hono was designed to accommodate a more natural flow of passengers, and that will only improve with future developments to the carpark. They’ve also left room for further expansion at either end of the terminal building. 

Airport CEO David Scott says there’s every reason for an airport terminal to be as iconic as this, because it provides a setting for the special things that happen in airports.

“At its most basic level, people come to the airport to travel, and to arrive at a destination,” he says. “But when people meet at airports, it can be the first time family members have seen each other in a long time, or they can be saying goodbye to people for a long time. I’m so glad the council decided to create an iconic place for people to have for those special memories.”

Construction

Cleland’s Construction joined the project in 2018 after winning the tender to bring the $28.7 million project together. The timeline of delivering the completed terminal was early 2020.

The build was project managed by Bruce Earby, who came into the core team of collaborators at that point. One of his main jobs was to come up with practical ways to achieve the design goals of Beca and Rangi Kipa.

“We had a lot of practical conversations about what was possible, but the whole design team was really agreeable. There was no pretentious stuff, they worked with us as well as we worked with them,” Earby says.

“Originally we didn’t have much of a handle on what they were after. But getting involved and coming along to a lot of meetings with those guys while they were still developing the artwork gave us a better understanding of what they were trying to achieve.”

Kipa set up a design workshop next to the construction site. He spent countless hours both coming up with designs and making them – often by hand, and with the help of his brother Glen and daughter Kaiwhetu.

There was a fair amount of fluidity throughout the build too, as various contributors came up with new design ideas, or more cost effective or efficient ways of doing something.

The artwork known as the red-shark in the centre of the terminal was originally going to be constructed with a poured resin, Earby says. That plan changed when they saw they could create a better effect by cutting tiles on the angle of its curves.

The iconic, cigar-shaped timber columns also weren’t in the original design. Earby says going from strictly structural frames to making them an intricate design element created another challenge.

“We had to go back to our subcontractor to delete the initial steel columns and come up with a way of fitting in these timber columns and ensuring we could protect them from being damaged throughout the rest of the build.”

Working on an operating airport presented a challenge too. While the team no longer had to accommodate a functioning airport terminal amongst the construction site, Gaye Batty says there were a few hoops to jump through regarding aviation security, particularly when working airside. They also had to allow traffic flows for commuters going past the construction site to the operating terminal.

There were also strict rules around something called F.O.D., or foreign object debris. That’s litter in everyday speak, and Batty says it’s something airports take extremely seriously. 

“The construction site was beside the runway, so there couldn’t be any construction debris, or even little bits of rubbish from lunches or anything blowing around, because it could have ended up in the propellers of a plane. So it was rigorous, and keeping the contractor conscious of tidiness on site was a challenge. They rose to that challenge though, and the site was always immaculate.”

Batty says they also made real efforts to communicate progress at the site to the council and the public. This includes erecting a big screen inside the old terminal to show commuters a live feed of the construction going on outside.

Te Hono

The terminal opened on March 17 last year, and it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t blown away by the magnificence of Te Hono.

It’s been nominated, and has won, a handful of awards, including some that are being judged later this year.

For Rangi Kipa, these awards are significant, but not in the way you might imagine.

“The airport didn’t win awards because it’s able to meet the building code,” he says.

“It’s because it’s an honest attempt to address a whole range of aspirations, the least of which is a functional airport terminal. A building like this that expresses a sense of fidelity to the land upon which it stands, is a really integral way of trying to address some of the disparities of the past and also meeting our aspirations for the future.”

Airport CEO David Scott admits he feels somewhat of a fraud coming to work and receiving praise for the new terminal. Scott succeeded Wayne Wootton in the role earlier this year, and readily admits he had nothing to do with it.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate to come into this new terminal and take all the compliments of what a magnificent place it is, having not done any of the hard work. My job is to ensure it remains a special place and we keep working hard so customers have experiences they remember here,” he says.

Scott, who oversaw a large renovation at Nelson Airport in his previous role, says New Plymouth’s is the best fit for purpose terminal in New Zealand. 

“It’s certainly the best collaboratively built process that I’ve come across,” he says. “It’s amazing what can be achieved if you’ve got an open mind. This building is an absolute testament to that, and if the region takes the same approach, the sky’s the limit – if you’ll excuse the pun.” 

He’s also a big believer in the value it has for visitors to Taranaki. Scott describes having such a spectacular venue that tells the story of the region as being incredibly significant.

“The old terminal served its purpose magnificently as a service point. The new terminal is a first impression of a district, where on clear days you can walk in, look out the windows and see the mountain in the background, and then have a terminal with all its magnificence, artwork and cultural metaphors. People can tell they’ve arrived somewhere special.”

Venture Taranaki, which plays a leading role in promoting tourism in the region, believes having such a unique airport terminal can really help the sector.

CEO Justine Gilliland agrees that Te Hono is a significant asset, enhancing the Taranaki travel experience and welcoming people home in the appropriate way.

“As the first touchpoint and gateway for many to the region, we can feel proud of the terminal’s unique, culturally significant design. We commend the close collaboration between many stakeholders, but particularly with Puketapu hapū, ensuring important narratives were fundamental to the overall design and which is now deservedly being well recognised and awarded.”

Awards

NZIOB – Interdisciplinary Collaboration – Finalist

Best Design Awards – Toitanga – Gold Pin

Best Design Awards – Spatial Design Communication – Finalist

NZIA Western Architecture Awards – Public Architecture – Winner

ENVIs Engineering Impact Award – Finalist

Property Industry Awards – Tourism & Leisure Property Award – Finalist

LGNZ EXCELLENCE Award for Cultural Well-being – Highly Commended

World Selection Prix Versailles Airports – Finalist

The Covid curve ball

As it turns out, that March 17 opening date was two days before New Zealand’s border closed to international arrivals, and a week before the country went into a Level 4 lockdown.

To say this is an unfortunate time to open a near-$29 million airport refurbishment is an incredible understatement. 

A planned opening by the Prime Minister on March 19 never eventuated, but luckily for those closest to the project, they’d already held their own event.

Around 400 stakeholders and iwi representatives gathered for an intimate dawn ceremony a few days before the terminal opened. 

The cruel timing of the terminal completion isn’t lost on anyone who’s been part of its construction.

In saying that, David Scott is encouraged by the trend he’s seeing in domestic travel numbers. He says they’re still very much in recovery mode, and while international travellers may be some way off, there are positive signs. 

“We’re currently at about 70% of pre-Covid domestic travel numbers, and that’s much better than we forecasted initially. Without any more significant lockdowns, we’re on track to return to pre-Covid levels by June 2022.”

Collaboration

It’s fascinating to hear the way in which all key collaborators are unified in their praise for the building and design process. 

Considering all the possible tensions that could exist in such a high profile construction project, not to mention a tricky cultural balance based on what’s gone on in the past, it’s a considerable achievement to have everyone come away gushing over the way it’s gone.

Rangi Kipa says the project has been a really healing process for himself and for Puketapu.

“We were able to let go of all that stuff from the past and focus on what we could contribute, and that was really cool. We wouldn’t have got the level of exposure and integration of our narrative without the collaboration we had. The average punter wouldn’t know the difference, but we do.” 

What makes the successful collaboration really interesting is that it didn’t ultimately change the final product in any material way. 

It might be easy to assume that having so many people contributing to all stages of the project might mean an overload of ideas. Things could get out of hand quite easily.

Somehow, though, this hasn’t happened.

At the very start of the project, key stakeholders and New Plymouth district councillors were taken on a virtual reality walk-through to show them what the finished terminal would look like. Matt Low says the real thing is essentially the same as they had planned in the initial simulation.

Low says the positive experience around the terminal construction has certainly changed the way Beca thinks about doing projects in the future.

At Cleland’s, Bruce Earby would really like to push the team approach when he can now too.

Rangi Kipa says the co-design process at Te Hono has already become an example for other projects he’s working on, including at the new National Archives of New Zealand. 

“It was incredibly brave of the leadership of the council to make the investment and bite the bullet,” he says. 

“Being able to be constructive, positive and creative, and shape the telling of our own story…this is one of the most visible examples of how we’ve been able to do that.”

“Together we have created a regional gateway that we can be proud of,” Batty says. “It respects our past and sets us up for a new way of working with mana whenua in the future.”

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