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Isthmus at the Urbanism New Zealand Conference

A wide range of work and thinking was represented by members of the Isthmus Group at the UrbanismNZ conference held in Wellington this week. It’s been well over a decade since the last big urban design conference in New Zealand was held, so there was plenty to talk about. And this is a good time to be talking about it.

On day one:

Haylea Muir spoke, with HLC’s Haylea Fitchett, about Child Centred Design for the New Generation of Auckland’s Suburbs

Andre de Graaf’s talk was titled Small Homes – Big Impact?

Ralph Johns discussed Bicycle Landscape: The Transformative Potential of Cycling Infrastructure in NZ.

On day two:

Gavin Lister presented Vinegar Lane: a NZ Urban Intensification Case Study.

And Duncan Ecob chaired a panel session about Northcote’s Suburban Regeneration with Isthmus principals David IrwinHelen Kerr, HLCs’ Mark Fraser and Panuku’s Morgan Reeve.


There were about 50 speakers altogether, with many sessions running in three parallel streams. The organisers boldly attempted to bring it all together in the summing up under the themes of Urban Form; Cultural Values; Resilient Cities and Well-being.

The Urban Design Group are now working up a position paper to take to the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, Phil Twyford, outlining an Aotearoa vision for people-centred, values-based urbanism.

Isthmus are right behind that.

Three NZIA Auckland local award winners

Isthmus Group won three NZIA Local Architecture Awards in Auckland tonight for a diverse group of projects with shared roots in land, people and culture. We’d like to thank our clients and the extended inter-disciplinary teams with whom we have collaborated on these unusual projects.

Freyberg Place and the Ellen Melville Centre won an award in the Heritage category. Delivered together for Auckland Council, this project explored the overlaps between public art, landscape and architecture. Isthmus collaborated closely with artist John Reynolds’ and Stevens Lawsons Architects. The restored building and the new public square provide a unique place that Aucklanders have claimed for themselves.

The next project, Vinegar Lane for client Progressive Enterprises, was a winner in the Urban Design category. This Ponsonby project offers an authentic model for low-rise intensification. It’s an ‘urban subdivision’ of 32 individual freehold lots; the block is broken down into achievable portions individually owned and financed, and designed by a range of architects within a simple set of design guidelines.

The final award went to the smallest project in the Small Project category. The Habitat Markers were developed as part of HLC’s Te Ara Manawa, a coastal walkway designed around the neighbourhoods of Hobsonville Point. Taking the form of large posts, standing or lying down, the markers are micro-architecture, homes for critters. Solid wooden blocks were CNC routed to create a labyrinth of holes and hollows for birds and insects to make their homes within; and in turn for children to explore and encounter nature.

All three projects address the same basic theme; we have a critical responsibility as designers to design for tangata (people) while respecting whenua (land).


Awards night photos by David St George for NZIA.


Idea Log

Idealog magazine sent us, and some other creatives around town, a hunk of wood and asked us what we could do with it.

We gave the Idea Log to Architectural Graduate Azmon Chetty who has a reputation around the studio for his hands-on ability with timber. He took it down to our workshop and set to work, inspired to make a connection between land, people and culture. Azmon says,

“The Isthmus Idea Log offers opportunities for play and discovery for a variety of activities, whether it be indoors or outdoors. It’s adaptive nature allows it to provoke creativity and thinking from kids or adults in the environment they are in.

This project makes this connection more obvious in a curious and fun way; as a design for mixed use. The log can be flung in a tree or thrown into the water to see what critters come to inhabit it. Other possibilities could be a bird feeder, hanging pot for plants to be grown on or simply a picnic lamp.”

Brad Coombs, Fellow and President

The NZILA AGM and Conference opening the other week was a big day for Isthmus Principal Brad Coombs. On the same day that he took office as NZILA President, he was also awarded Fellowship of the NZ Institute of Landscape Architects for his two decades of contribution to practice and profession:

“Brad’s contribution to the wider profession, like his contribution within Isthmus, has been achieved in a quiet manner. He is not one to ‘blow his own trumpet’. Yet he has gained mana through his service to others, the quality of his work, and his wisdom.  For these reasons, he fully deserves election as a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects.”

Brad sees the President role as “an opportunity to take a fresh look at where the profession is at, and as an Institute, to confirm the priorities for the next three years and beyond.”

“My first priority will be to get my head around the projects that the Executive has already initiated – particularly the Governance Review and the Landscape Guidelines, and to put in place processes to deliver them for the benefit of our members.”

Inclusion and Diversity

Last week Isthmus’ Wellington studio hosted a talk entitled Driving Inclusion and Diversity with three speakers championing advocacy in this area. We had a very positive response and a great turnout from the NZIA and NZILA for the event. The event was organised by Isthmus Architectural Graduate Suchita Jain; here is her report:

Vanisa Dhiru, the President of the National Council of Women New Zealand, discussed the various ventures that organisations are undertaking to support Gender Equal NZ. Highlight: 74% of NZers don’t know or don’t think people should work full time if they want to progress their career. What does this say about our workplaces? How can we make our workplaces more inclusive towards people in need of flexibility- young parents etc.

Christina van Bohemen, president of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, spoke about the launch of the Diversity Agenda. She urged the audience to get their workplaces involved in the change-making process and how Isthmus is one of the founding partners for the Agenda. Highlight: Founding Partners of the Diversity Agenda will be reporting on how/ what they are doing to work towards the collective goal of 20% more women in engineering and architecture by 2021.

Haylea Muir, our young and spirited Board Director (amongst her many other roles) spoke about her journey at Isthmus and what motivated her to push for a Women in Leadership Group. Highlight: Haylea quoted Isthmus’ CEO Ralph Johns from earlier this year about Isthmus’ business culture – “We want to evolve our business to be led by a representative and diverse group of talented people. We think that’s good for business, as well as being firmly in line with our values”.

Vinegar Lane wins NZPI Project Award

Progressive Enterprise’s Vinegar Lane development recently won the prestigious Rodney Davies Project Award at the annual NZPI National Planning awards. Isthmus Founders David Irwin and Gavin Lister joined the client and the consultant team of Russell McVeagh and Zomac Planning at the awards ceremony.

NZPI bestow just one Project Award each year, recognising excellence in:

– the processes which lead to the identification of the need for or justification of the project,

– the planning processes undertaken in formulating the project including research, consultation,

– the evaluation of alternatives and decision making, and

– any physical, economic, cultural or social change which has been result of the project.

Vinegar Lane’s consent mechanism was innovative. Each of the freehold lots in this ‘urban subdivision’ was sold with pre-arranged resource consent to construct a building that had not yet been designed. Architects of individual buildings work to the Vinegar Lane Design Manual which stipulates the building envelope, development controls and a design review process.

This award further recognises the importance of Vinegar Lane as an authentic model for low-rise intensification in Auckland. On average, it is estimated Vinegar Lane will yield 280 dwellings per hectare (net).