Josh Gale meets community groups building and maintaining their own backcountry huts
Huts; even children love to make them. We start out with old boxes, furniture and blankets when we’re just a few years old. Later, we convince dad to build one for us in a tree.
My mate’s big brother, with obvious pleasure, destroyed the first hut we had built by ourselves – a subterranean rabbit hole fortified with log walls. We thought it could withstand any missile attack, but a joyful foot stomping left it beyond repair.
As teenagers we lost our fathers’ tools while building more serious huts and returned home empty handed to face the wrath.
The old man was quick to forgive because he too got it: like fire lighting, building huts – shelters from the storm – is etched into the human psyche.
As DOC’s operating budget gets squeezed from every angle, the department has begun to outsource more of its work to community and volunteer groups. While some begrudge DOC for the holes in its funding, others have taken to the challenge of building and maintaining huts.
Julia Bradshaw and Eddie Newman are two such people. When DOC removed Mt Brown Hut on the West Coast, Bradshaw and Newman formed the Mt Brown Hut Project with the support of other Coasters to convince DOC to give them the old Lower Arahura Hut, which had just been replaced with a new hut, to put on Mt Brown.
DOC okayed the hut’s move, even providing a helicopter to fly sections of the hut which were reworked to its new site.
The four-bunk Mt Brown Hut now sits on piles overlooking Lake Kaniere. But Bradshaw says knowing what she knows now she would have done things differently.
“We wouldn’t try to recycle an old hut, we’d build a new one from scratch,” she says. “We had already put in piles before it became apparent that a valley hut built during the 1960s just wasn’t going to work in a high alpine area.”
Andrew Buglass, the founder of Permolat and the remotehuts.co.nz website says the group was forced to rebuild the entire hut because building and safety regulations demanded it be built to withstand 240km/h winds.
The iron cladding and floor are the only parts of Lower Arahura Hut that remain.
“The building code and health and safety standards just about killed the Mt Brown project,” Buglass says. “There has to be a more pragmatic way to do this; it requires flexibility within the system that allows community groups to have basic standards for basic structures.”
Buglass believes a two-tier hut system is developing in New Zealand with well-maintained and provisioned DOC huts for Great Walks and popular circuits and a network of low-use huts that receive little maintenance.
With DOC becoming increasingly cash-strapped, Buglass says it’s likely more community groups will take over responsibility for remote huts.
“I think community groups are quite happy to take on this role, but DOC also needs to drop its insistence on some of the stringent building, health and safety regulations,” says Buglass. “The old huts and bivs the Forest Service built are really basic, but they’ve stood the test of time so we don’t need a sophisticated design.”
Sophisticated hut designs is something Ron Pynenburg, co-owner of Wellington-based architecture firm Pynenburg and Collins, knows all about. Pynenburg has designed about 70 huts for DOC since 2000 and created the department’s hut design manual which captures the hut building knowledge within DOC and provides a set of ready-to-go architectural templates for its four to 12-bunkers.
Pynenburg, a member of the Hutt Valley Tramping Club since 1976, was also the chairman of the Tararua Forest Park’s Hut Committee which restructured and reprioritised the park’s hut network.
While his hut designs have made advancements, he believes the core purpose of a hut essentially remains the same: to provide shelter from a storm.
“Instead of carrying your tent in, a permanent tent is provided,” Pynenburg says. “It’s got four walls, a roof, is shelter from the elements and provides a warm and dry night before you push on.”
The six bunkers built by the New Zealand Forest Service remain the underlying DNA of the huts Pynenburg designs for DOC because these huts, he says, are simple and have proven their salt over the last 50 years.
“There are a few changes you can make, but the six-bunkers are plug and play huts, small enough that if you want to put one up a valley somewhere you can find a spot and then knock it together in a few days,” Pynenburg says.
However, Pynenburg says huts done on the cheap are not the way forward because the money saved in the initial outlay is ultimately lost on maintenance and repairs in the long term.
With a greater investment at the outset, Pynenburg says it’s possible to build huts that look after themselves.
“When huts are more self-managing it means when we visit one they’ll be welcoming, presentable and comfortable rather than cold, damp and dingy,” he explains.
DOC’s ‘hut man’ Brian Dobbie co-ordinates the department’s allocation of capital funds for recreation facilities and has worked closely with Pynenburg since 2002.
A dedicated hut bagger since the days before the strange pursuit got its name, Dobbie is just five huts away from bagging 600 of the 1100 huts scattered around the New Zealand backcountry.
Like Pynenburg, Dobbie believes the New Zealand Forest Service four- and six-bunk huts, known as the S81 and FF76 designs, have stood the test of time. But he says improvements can always be made.
“Sometimes small changes can make a big difference to what is a very good basic design,” Dobbie says. “We’ve taken the underlying concept, shape and style of the NZFS huts – a wooden-frame building with steel cladding – and built on it.”
Changes like locating and orientating huts so they receive as much sunlight as possible, introducing bigger aluminium-framed double-glazed windows and skylights to capture the sun’s light and warmth along with using insulation mean today’s huts are warmer than NZFS-era huts.
More technical changes such as passive ventilation air vents and vapour barriers reduce condensation, keeping huts dryer and warmer.
“If you’ve got warm moist air inside a hut and outside it’s zero degrees then that interior moisture migrates through the wall, condenses and freezes in the middle of the night, saturating the wall and insulation, causing all sorts of deterioration problems,” Pynenburg says of older huts. “I’ve seen huts where the insulation is saturated and the timber black and it’s all because of inside moisture getting into the wall cavity.
“[In some] huts it’s actually warmer and dryer standing outside in six inches of snow than it is standing inside the hut. That’s a big fail.”
But for groups like the Mt Brown Hut Project, Pynenburg and Dobbie’s hut-geek developments are either too damn expensive or could be seen as a philosophical break with the original rustic spirit of the backcountry.
Instead of a bit of bang and clang thrown together with little more thought than a kid’s forest fort, Pynenburg and Dobbie’s huts are a space age affair. But on the hut standard continuum, from sophisticated to primitive, things can go too far in the opposite direction as well.
Ten years ago on Stewart Island this was the case until a bunch of blokes got building.
The 3000 or so hunters who visit the island’s 50 hunting blocks each year once used tents and haphazard shelters chucked together with trees, plastic tarps, bits of iron and polythene.
These three-sided stop-gap shelters would gradually fall apart, forcing hunters to patch them over with successive coverings, creating a mess and attracting rats and possums.
Then Invercargill Police Sergeant John DeLury and the Rakiura Hunter Camp Trust came to the rescue.
DeLury is the trust’s chairman and over the last 10 years has been building huts on Stewart Island to make staying there more comfortable.
DOC suggested in the late 1990s that hunters solve what was becoming an environmental problem by building permanent three-sided shelters. “We couldn’t see any point in that,” DeLury says. “They’d have become the same vermin-infested holes we wanted to get away from.”
The trust made a counter-proposal to DOC: they’d get buy-in from the community and local hunters and build proper huts theselves.
DOC agreed and stumped up $20,000 for the initiative and in 1999 DeLury and his small band of keen and able men and women began an epic mission to build huts on selected hunting blocks.
Eighteen huts later, DeLury knows the building process verbatim. He rattles off lengths, widths, materials, weights, costs and man-hours like he’s a builder rather than a cop.
Compared with Pynenburg and Dobbie’s 21st century huts, DeLury’s are basic, but they do the job for a rugged bunch.
When the trust got started it used untreated four-by-two framing timber, tanalised ply exterior cladding and no insulation or interior lining.
But changes to the Building Code, which demands backcountry huts be built from higher grade treated timber, marine grade roofing iron if in a coastal environment, stainless steel fixings and insulation bats, and new regulations as a result of the Christchurch earthquake have made building huts increasingly expensive and complicated.
In the early days, the owner of the freight ferry to Stewart Island transported building materials for free. But that deal went south when Ian Munroe sold the ferry. What once cost the trust $8500 to build now costs $28,000.
It doesn’t help, either, when building inspectors with little knowledge of backcountry huts insist on modifications. “At one stage, when we built two huts, we were suddenly told they had to have under floor insulation,” says DeLury. “I hopped online and found out you only have to have under floor insulation if you’re hooked up to the national grid.
“You’ve got to do your homework and if you can get a builder onboard then that’s the optimum.”
DeLury and his team, which includes two builders, complete the pre-construction phase of their huts in Invercargill over three weekends and the installation with six volunteers in five days, totalling an estimated 450 man hours.
With substantial financial support from community groups, hunting clubs and businesses, the trust has spent an estimated $270,000 building 13 huts on conservation hunting blocks. It’s also built five huts on blocks administered by the Rakiura Maori Land Trust and taken over the maintenance of three existing NZFS huts.
Total man-hours to date: about 9500.
Permolat’s Andrew Buglass says the Rakiura Hunting Camp Trust’s huts are an example of what a small group of people can achieve when it has community support. They also prove that not every hut needs all the ‘modcons’.
“Sophisticated huts with double glazing are prohibitive if you want to have a big network of basic huts,” he says. “That kind of accommodation isn’t necessary for a lot of people who’re going into more remote country.”
Many remote hutters might be satisfied with a basic ‘shelter from a storm’ and while that minimalist approach is less expensive, it doesn’t automatically mean all community groups should go that route. With buy-in from the community and business, other possibilities arise.
The Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust has received enormous support for its project to create the Old Ghost Road cycle and tramping trail, including two, of four, completed 12-bunk huts.
The 160km trail is a joint initiative of the trust, DOC and the New Zealand Cycle Trail project which donated $2m towards its construction.
The trail is based on a gold miners’ road that when completed will connect the old dray road in the Lyell (Upper Buller Gorge) to the Mokihinui River and join the Charming Creek Walkway and the Denniston Plateau.
Trustee Phil Rossiter says it’s a remote and wild area with a lack of accommodation so the huts were a must.
Even with $2m from the Government, funding has been one of the project’s “biggest hurdles and impediments”, making volunteer engagement a necessity.
With volunteer labour and generous financial and material support from the likes of Solid Energy, Mitre 10 and other businesses, the trust is building huts for $1200m² – 30 to 50 per cent of what a standard 10- to 12-bunk hut would cost DOC to build.
“The design is our own and they tick all the boxes in terms of the Building Code and DOC guidelines,” Rossiter says. “They have definite tweaks to give them a point of difference and to accentuate the setting.
“We tried hard early on to mimic the architecture of the old miners’ huts with things like high gable frames. What we’ve come up with is certainly not what you’d typically see on any public track in New Zealand.”
Besides having their own design and character, the Old Ghost Road huts also have a few bells and whistles. Stainless steel benches, a large deck area, a covered and lined porch protected with clearlite, double glazed windows, under floor insulation, insect screens and pallet fires are sure to get the nod from the likes of Ron Pynenburg and Brian Dobbie.
True to the ingenuity of the Coast, the trust has also been working with a Buller engineer to develop a manual screw feed pallet fire. “People staying there can turn the dial and it will automatically feed pallets for an hour,” Rossiter explains. “It will be a nice sustainable way of enjoying what everyone likes – a bloody good fire.”
Like Andrew Buglass, Rossiter predicts community groups are going to become the “biggest movers and shakers” for building and maintaining backcountry huts.
He says for community groups, funding will always be the key but with good planning it needn’t be a stopper.
“Having a sustainable delivery model involves three parties and won’t take off with a community group alone,” says Rossiter. “In our instance the driver is the trust, which brings the ideas and passion, then you need a supportive regulatory body like DOC, and the third party, in our case, is Solid Energy which has a big presence in the Buller.
“When you’ve got all those lined up, you’ve got oxygen, heat and fuel – energy, dollars and regulatory approval – and you’re away.”
Or think of it like finding a couple of mates to help build it, gaining permission to use dad’s tools and getting a bit of timber donated by the next door neighbour.
Just remember to bring back the tools.