Growing up in a New Lynn state house, a young Deidre Brown would scan the real estate pages of the time and conscientiously construct paper models of the homes she read about. "I remember moving through buildings in my mind and trying to think of how they came together," she says.

Little wonder then that Deidre went on to study architecture and as a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland now passes on her passion for the spaces that shape our lives.

For Deidre, architecture has always been more than a high art confined to academics. As author of the recently released Maori Architecture: from fale to wharenui and beyond, she explores the genesis of New Zealand's indigenous buildings right through to Maori design in an up-to-the-minute context. "Certainly I wrote it so that it would be a resource for practitioners and students, but I also hope it provides valuable lessons in ways of living."

The title, however, was somewhat debated. "Not everyone thinks the word 'Maori' is connected to the word 'architecture'; some thought it was like calling the book Maori rocket science," she laughs.

With a mother from the Ngapuhi and Ngati Kahu tribes and a father from Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, Deidre has the genealogical credentials for a rounded perspective. She lives with her South African-born husband Grant, and their son Maximilian in a Mt Albert worker's cottage and has, as is de rigueur, punched out the back to create an open-plan space that leads through bi-fold doors to the garden. In so doing, she admits she has followed the convention of valuing privacy, of turning her back on the immediate vicinity. Architect Rewi Thompson did it best in his own home in Kohimarama when he designed an impenetrable concrete facade that shunned any socialisation and also the notion of "owning" the view.

Deidre believes that having activity areas at the front of homes would allow better social networks. "At best, this connection with the world outside may get neighbours to collaborate on things like improving the streetscape or the local park."

Yet is this type of conversation ever likely to arise?

"I think it's a great shame that kids at school are not taught about their built environment. Even in the 50s and 60s, architecture was left out of the kit of creative studies."

Deidre believes there is scant interest or understanding about this aspect of community. "There's complacency; we just leave it up to the architects or urban designers to sort out." Add to that the fact that basic, practical skills such as carpentry are not passed on and you are left with people who feel disengaged from their everyday environment. "When I was little, Dad taught me how to use tools. We did some dreadful alterations, but at least I felt engaged with the building. Most are so scared of Maori have not had the buildings in recent decades to doing things now that they have contracted out that responsibility."

The concern she has is: how can we empower people so they can effect change in their built environment in a way that improves the way they live?

Back home, she is chagrined that she hasn't made alterations to present a gathering space that is referenced to the street, but is adamant there are other vestiges of Maori influence in the bungalow's revamp.

The generous eaves out back reflect the idea of shelter provided by the porch in whare and, she points out, multi-use spaces have historically been part of the layout in early Maori homes.

"I did want a totally enclosed kitchen but Grant won that battle," she explains. This was a nod to the concept of tapu - that which is special and restricted - and noa, a state of being free from tapu. In the traditional sense, this means the food preparation areas and ablutions should remain separate from the rest of the living. "Remember Maori were used to preparing food outside too," Deidre remarks.

While her compromise is a type of half wall that shields the kitchen from the living zone, she's pleased to say that some Maori ideas of using space are filtering into design. "Maori have not had the buildings in recent decades to accommodate their sense of home. There is a tension in not being able to adapt to your environment."

As a personal reference, she looks to her mother Rosine who, she says, aspired to live in a state house because it was thoroughly modern but in the end, did it fit with the way she actually lived?

Architect Rau Hoskins is involved in an Environment Ministry programme that has established an urban design protocol aiming to incorporate Maori cultural values into contemporary design.

His concept for a Housing New Zealand dwelling uses corridors and wide halls to divide off the tapu and noa areas, plumbs and wires in the double garage to act as an extra sleep-out and has a distinctive gabled design that references the early meeting houses. And, it is stressed, this unit must be integrated, along with communal areas, into a larger vision. The concept of papakainga, with no boundaries or fences, may not be such a long way off. Recessionistas tell us we will become more reliant on extended family and the wider community.

On the far wall in Deidre's new galley kitchen hangs an enigmatic portrait, a painting in black and white with tiny flecks of colour, by Ellen Portch, a teacher at Elam School of Fine Arts. It's a rendition of Deng Xiaoping, the venerated Chinese leader who was instrumental in opening up that country, post-Mao, to the West. The painting technique employed - layer upon layer - has the effect of a creating a moko on his chin.

"I love that," smiles Deidre. In its way, it's a suggestion that perhaps there's a modicum of Maori thinking latent in all of us.

•Maori Architecture: from fale to wharenui and beyond by Deidre Brown is published by Penguin ($70) and is a finalist in the The Massey University Maori Book Awards which will be announced on Friday.