Increasing the demand for homes made from a repackaging of papatuanuku, the earth, is what a low-cost housing project in the Far North hopes to achieve.

Auckland University's Engineering School has been leading research into the performance of uku housing - a building method which involves mixing earth, flax and cement to use as a base material.

But civil engineering PhD student John Cheah, who is working with the Ahipara community to develop a house by the end of 2010, one of only a handful this decade, says it is an idea that rural Maori have yet to be sold on.

Researchers have identified that group as a significant component of the population who have a lower-than-average quality of health because of housing issues.

"A lot of them like it, they don't have the idea of earth as poor or undesirable, but they need some more evidence that they're quality. They want to visit a friend who has an earth house, they want to go touch it," Mr Cheah said.

The research aims to "equip rural Maori communities with the knowledge to use their own earth and labour to build desirable housing".

In a three-year study Mr Cheah will look at the performance and viability of uku housing so it can be adopted by more communities.

Proving the theory that the uku mixture will help keep homes warm in winter and cool in summer will be high on that agenda.

"There's a lot of heat energy around in winter - it's just about capturing it. You also want to design it so the walls are shaded during the summer because the sun is higher in the sky, you want it heating the roof and reflecting and only getting part of your walls."

The results of the study, which builds on previous work by the university, will be compiled into a guide available in English and Te Reo.

A two-bedroom uku home built at Lake Rotoiti cost $85,000 but Mr Cheah expected significant cost savings on this as resources would be sourced locally from communally owned land and labour costs kept to a minimum. While a kitset might be cheaper in the long run, the saved heating costs associated with the uku home would hopefully make the newer choice more attractive.