The first female building apprentice hired by a major Northland construction firm is among those helping to build Kawakawa's Hundertwasser-inspired Te Hononga community hub.

The $6.4 million rammed-earth building is taking shape behind the town's famous loos and will include a public library, council service centre, gallery, workshop, showers and toilets for freedom campers, and an interpretative centre exploring the relationship between Kawakawa and Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

The project includes coach and car parking to ease Kawakawa's summertime traffic woes and a town square, to be created by demolition of the old post office and library, linking the main street and the hub.

On Monday 20 previously unemployed local people, who will gain qualifications while helping to build the earth walls, were welcomed on to the site.

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Trainees with members of the Kawakawa Hundertwasser Park Charitable Trust and Ngāti Hine after Monday's formal welcome at the Te Hononga site. Photo / supplied
Trainees with members of the Kawakawa Hundertwasser Park Charitable Trust and Ngāti Hine after Monday's formal welcome at the Te Hononga site. Photo / supplied

Others helping the building take shape include Michiko Cooper, a 19-year-old of Ngāti Hine descent who moved up from Christchurch two months ago to pursue her passion for carpentry.

Cooper is the first female apprentice hired by Whangārei-based Harnett Builders, the project's lead contractor.

She originally had her sights set on an architecture degree but changed tack after completing a pre-trade qualification in carpentry last year.

''After I did my pre-trade my passion for carpentry grew, so I just stuck with it,'' she said.

She had no luck finding an apprenticeship in Christchurch so, at her father's suggestion, moved to Motatau, near Kawakawa, and contacted Northland building firms.

Though petite and not as strong as some of her male workmates, Cooper said she wasn't treated any differently. The great thing about working on Te Hononga was that she was involved in every step of the project from the foundations up.

''If I was working for a show home company we'd be pretty much just standing up frames every day. Here we're doing something different every day, plus the project is quite unique because everything's made of curves, there's no straight lines. It's been a really good experience and I've learnt a lot,'' she said.

Site foreman Sam Fielden, of Harnett Builders, said Cooper was the firm's first female apprentice and the first woman he'd worked with in 18 years on building sites.

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''It's about time the building industry caught up with the times. It takes a lot of courage to do what Michiko has done — I was pretty intimidated when I started as a guy, and she's moved up from Christchurch as well.''

Trainee earth wall builder Poai Niha. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Trainee earth wall builder Poai Niha. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Poai Niha, 22, also from Motatau, started work on Te Hononga this week under Ahipara rammed earth expert Rueben Taipari.

"It's very interesting to work alongside the experts and listen to their kōrero. The future of Ngāti Hine will only grow with this, which is beautiful," Niha said.

The 20 other trainees who were formally welcomed to the site on Monday range in age from 18-49. Most had been unemployed and come from Kawakawa and Moerewa with a few from Kerikeri and Mangonui.

Their 40-week work training programme has been developed by Regent Training Centre (RTC), the contractors and the Ministry of Social Development.

RTC Northland development manager Alan Tidswell said it was a ''fantastic opportunity'' to help locals on to pathways to training and employment.

''It's something the government should be doing for all capital projects across New Zealand.'' he said.

Plan showing the walls' colour scheme, representing the
Plan showing the walls' colour scheme, representing the "100 hills" of Ngāti Hine. Image / Avail Pacific

Te Hononga is believed to be the first commercial rammed-earth building in New Zealand and the first to use Sirewall, a high-strength rammed-earth building method developed in Canada. Unlike traditional rammed earth it is strong enough to support more than one storey.

While Sirewall has Canadian consultants on site for the next month it is otherwise a wholly Northland project, from architect Pip Bolton of Avail Pacific to the Whangārei building and earth wall contractors and the Kerikeri company which built a ''floating rib raft'' as an alternative to driving piles into the swampy soil.

The project is a partnership between Kawakawa Hundertwasser Park Charitable Trust and local iwi Ngāti Hine. It is funded by the Provincial Growth Fund, Lotteries, Foundation North, Far North Holdings, and the Far North District and Northland Regional councils. Te Hononga, which can be translated as "the joining of people", is due to open next April.

A test wall trialling the Sirewall rammed-earth building method was unveiled in June last year. Photo / file
A test wall trialling the Sirewall rammed-earth building method was unveiled in June last year. Photo / file