Jerome Partington, one of the people behind New Zealand’s most revolutionary building hopes the design will be a greenprint for more of the same countrywide, writes Alan Perrott.

Shoes off, lounging on the grass, chatting about dinosaur breath; this is green evangelism, Jerome Partington-style.

And as chilled as he seems, this 49-year-old expat Londoner must be feeling a wee bit of pressure. After all, he's a big part of Jasmax's project to construct one of the most revolutionary buildings ever attempted in New Zealand, and its highly anticipated delivery date has already been delayed a month.

Could it be that he's taken on a little of the indigenous "she'll be right" attitude he'd so much like to break down?

Because the pressure is most definitely on. For starters, it's never easy being first to do anything, then there's the point that what they are attempting is much more than just a building; it's a test, a statement, and even a bit of a dare to their colleagues. If that wasn't enough, Ivan Mercep, Jasmax co-founder, NZIA Gold Medalist, and the project's lead architect, was also tasked with creating a design that also made a statement about the iwi's hopes and aspirations.

So, it was always going to be more than a flash office, and this $15 million, state-of-the-green-art Tuhoe project should gently abide within the Bay of Plenty township for the next 250 years. Then poof, it'll disappear more completely than a Urewera mist on a windy day.

So, yes, dinosaur breath ...

The point the sustainability manager is making is that nothing is new, even the air we breathe has been pre-breathed by T. Rex, all its mates, and everything that preceded and followed them.

"It's the first and second laws of thermodynamics," he says (did I mention Partington is also a former physicist?).

"Everything breaks down but nothing disappears. So, even when we think we're making something new all we're really doing is moving stuff around, and that's fine except that mostly the way we move that stuff around doesn't support the best outcomes. Instead, they're wasteful, inefficient and damage the planet's ability to sustain life."

Which segues nicely into the fundamental premise underlying Te Uru Taumatua, Tuhoe's new iwi and civil defence headquarters. Jargon heads might like to call it restorative sustainability and, all going well, it'll enable the opening of the first project built in accordance with the madly stringent North American Living Building Challenge.

An artist's impression of the Tuhoe Te Uru Taumatua project. Photo / Jasmax and Tuhoe
An artist's impression of the Tuhoe Te Uru Taumatua project. Photo / Jasmax and Tuhoe

Essentially, the building will exist off the grid, it'll import no power or water and export no waste. It'll be an enclosed ecosystem constructed by a largely local workforce from renewable, non-toxic, local materials running off solar power and drinking captured rainwater while being sited on damaged land (known as brown or grey fields depending on the previous use) that will eventually be restored to pristine condition by plantings that'll be fertilised by biodegradable waste.

If that's not enough, it also has to be easy on the eye and a place people enjoy and want to look after - aesthetics and health considerations have equal billing to utility.

This is more than "do no harm", it's about leaving things better than you found them, so much so that the challenge demands the building be totally removable.

Come the end of its planned life, about 251 years from now, visitors to the site should find nothing but a small forest full of birds.

Yet it's too early to say if they've succeeded. Not only is it a big ask to meet every criteria - called the seven petals of the flower - the judges won't even turn up for their assessment until it's been occupied for at least a year.

The first two buildings to meet the challenge were certified in the United States in October 2010, and another four joined them last March. Te Uru Taumatua is one of about 100 across the US, Australasia and Ireland hoping to follow suit.

Construction work on Te Uru Taumata is scheduled to be completed this month and the formal opening is set for March 8.

The Tuhoe Te Uru Taumatua project currently under construction using a largely local workforce with renewable, non-toxic, local materials. Photo / Jasmax and Tuhoe
The Tuhoe Te Uru Taumatua project currently under construction using a largely local workforce with renewable, non-toxic, local materials. Photo / Jasmax and Tuhoe

Although it appears to be an onerous mission, Partington hopes it isn't a one-off; he'd like nothing more than to encourage others to have a go, even if there's a suspicion that he's trying to create the image of New Zealand he had when he first considered emigrating.

His London flat was down an alleyway guarded by a barrowboy selling fruit. Every time he walked past, he'd see the timber apple boxes decorated with images of New Zealand landscapes: "I guess they caught my imagination ... then I had some friends come here, so I came out to visit. Then one thing led to another and here I am."

Unsurprisingly, the reality didn't totally measure up. Oh, the vistas were as panoramic as he'd hoped, but our urban environment was a mess.

Diplomatically he describes Auckland as having "huge potential". Another way of putting it is that zero ambition, no concern for long-term value, and an obsession with short-term costs have left Auckland with next-to-no bricks and mortar heritage (including Partington's namesake windmill), some of the ugliest apartment buildings outside of the Eastern Bloc, and a set of industry standards that almost demanded our finished products leak like sieves.

If such results prove anything, he says, it's that our "she'll be right" and "I'm all right, Jack" attitudes are excellent inertial brakes on doing better.

Just look, he says, at the response to the Government's home insulation grants. If the aim was to boost the health and finances of struggling families, it was taken up with gusto by the middle class and not so much at all from landlords, which left renters with ongoing heating bills or cold homes. "Sometimes I think we could do with a bit of regulation to make these things work ... this is the most free market, neo-liberal economy I've had the opportunity to live in and I still don't know if it serves us that well."

So, he sees two options for the future: we either maintain the business as usual approach, which is dictated by the market, or we start playing the long game in the knowledge that initial costs will pay off.

"In that case, we sit down and work out what a successful building looks like and accept that we live within a biosystem that we continue to put ridiculous stress on. Because the odd thing is that we all know that what we're doing right now doesn't work, we just seem to be stuck working this way because it's how things have always been done."

Which only adds to the personal stake he has in the project.

"Yeah, there's huge pressure, and it's across a number of factors because, unlike most buildings, we have to achieve success in every area. But in the end it's not just about getting the certification, it's about advocacy and showing the industry that there's a better model and a better way that makes best use of our natural advantages, sunshine and rain. Otherwise, well, I've got a postcard on my desk that says: 'Fail Better; Fail First."'

Whatever the result, he intends to keep going. Aside from four possible new living builds, he's selling his renovated and feted Waiheke bach so he can make a living building one to live in - one is already under way in Pt Chevalier.

As sustainability manager for Jasmax (one of the country's longest running architectural and interior design companies) he is driving a rapid greening of their office building, work practices and design philosophy.

But he remains a realistic idealist: "Look, I know I'm not going to wake up in 10 years' time and find hundreds of these [living] buildings all over the country, but we might at least be making better designs, training people better, and engaging with more people now that we have the language.

"I can't see how you can argue against it really, it's like people look at the natural environment and think 'that's beautiful' but there's a total disconnect with the city. We're already about 25 years behind where we should be there. Why can't it be a place as much for children as it is for adults? Why can't it be beautiful? I think that innovative spirit was around when people first settled here, but I suspect we've become a bit complacent, we need to rediscover our ambition."