Ron Pynenburg is responsible for designing more backcountry huts than anyone in recent history. He explains to Matthew Pike what makes a good hut and what the future may hold
If you’re a seasoned tramper, you’ve probably seen more of Ron Pynenburg’s huts than he has.
The Christchurch-based architect has, in many ways, created the modern face of our backcountry hut network. His firm, Pynenburg and Collins Architects Ltd, has designed 80 of our huts since 2001, sprucing up backcountry classics like Roaring Stag in the Tararuas and Speargrass in Nelson Lakes, as well as leading large-scale developments like Welcome Flat and Waihohonu.
Yet, despite being a keen tramper himself, Pynenburg is usually working on the next hut by the time one of his designs is built.
“With the bigger huts I will go to the site before it’s built,” he says, “but I don’t often get to see it afterwards.”
He has managed to see some of his creations though – a particular favourite being Pakituhi Hut, above Lake Hawea. “It’s only a short walk from the hut to the ridge and from there I could see the lake and the sunset – it’s a great place to be.”
Maintaining a sense of place in the surroundings is a major consideration in Pynenburg’s designs. “From Waihohonu Hut, for instance, you can see Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu – you know where you are,” he explains. “Anchorage is very firmly orientated with a view straight out at the bay and from Liverpool Hut you can see Mt Aspiring.
“Where you are is important – you’re not just ‘in the backcountry’. It’s important to have a link to location and a sense of place from within the hut.”
The ‘four walls and a roof’ requirement of basic huts are a far cry from the likes of Waihohonu, with its sophisticated waste disposal system, hot water, radiators, solar powered lights and large double glazed windows which follow the path of the sun.
The distinction between these types of huts is one that Pynenburg is eager to keep. “In New Zealand the huts reflect the needs of the user more than the wants,” he says. “And for backcountry huts, that’s a shelter from the storm.”
Many trampers are aghast at the hundreds of thousands spent on the Waihohonus and Anchorages of this world. But Pynenburg argues that they serve the needs of another kind of user. “The big huts are, for a lot of people, their first experience of the backcountry. We want them to have a good time to instigate a feeling that this place is worth hanging on to and keeping. If people are cold, damp and miserable, they’ll think ‘let’s get out of here’.”
The architect says building an outside deck is also important to helping hut users overcome cabin fever. Yet, to Pynenburg, the traditional six-bunk Forest Service huts are an architectural classic. Their simplicity, he believes, is part of their joy, and getting too technical can only lead to problems. “If you get too clever, there’s a risk something can go wrong,” he explains. “Remote huts need to look after themselves.”
With larger huts there’s scope to be a little more inventive, while being careful not to detract from the experience of being somewhere remote and wild.
“Technology’s improving all the time and there’s nothing stopping a fully furnished hotel being built in the bush,” says Pynenburg. “But it’s all about philosophy.
“There’s an intrinsic value in the backcountry – it’s more about the environment and solitude, simplicity and remoteness. That’s what people go there for.”
If someone wants to use their iPad and go on Facebook, then Pynenburg believes they’ve missed the point.
Some criticise new huts like Waihohonu for having flashy features such as solar powered hot water, saying they’re unnecessary and they separate hut users from the wild. But Pynenburg explains this particular feature makes good sense when it comes to energy saving.
“The reason we put hot water into Waihohonu was so people would use less gas to heat water up – and the solar does the job well.” So well, in fact, that DOC installed radiators in the bunk rooms of the hut so as not to waste the ‘spare’ hot water generated.
Any significant changes Pynenburg would like to see in the future have more to do with sustainability than Wi-Fi and coffee machines.
He envisages an LED displaying information for how much hot water is available, photovoltaics usage (conversion of solar energy into electricity), and resource usage.
Pynenburg can see no reason why huts can’t be completely self sufficient, once you work out how many people use it each year and how much wood you’ll need.
“You could put aside a plot of woodland and cut one tree each year. By the time you get back round to the first tree it’s mature again, meaning it’s a sustainable wood plot.
“Some big huts could be self-sufficient in terms of water, fuel and waste. It may be wishful thinking, but if we can make a hut self-reliant without having to fly anything in, then why not do the same in urban areas?”
But the architect would be the first to admit that his is just one of thousands of opinions for the future face of backcountry huts. We appear to be in the luxurious position of being able to develop them as much or as little as we like. It’s all, as Pynenburg says, down to our philosophy.
“In 30 years we could do whatever we want to our backcountry huts. It’s just a case of figuring out what that is. The problem is, you could put 10 trampers in a room and none will agree.”