Art house, Nelson in 2034

By Dr Robert Hickson

3 min read

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  • Opinion
  • New Zealand

Futures speculator Dr Robert Hickson envisages Nelson in 2034 following a systems collapse, which has resulted in do-it-yourselfers replacing traditional architects and builders.

chen hu 523351 unsplash copy
Super tree Photo: By Chen Hu

Nelson has long been known for its creativity. That’s partly why I moved here, along with the cheap housing of course! The climate used to be great too. I guess it still is relatively speaking, but it can be too hot, too dry for too long. Or too stormy.

Creativity can have its downsides too. While the bigger cities have been content to go with standardised manufactured building choices, Nelson has been experimenting with more free-form and personalized construction. 

It started nearly a decade ago with the Council sponsoring “The World of Habitable Art ™”, as a new way to stimulate the economy. Although more, they initially thought, through attracting tourists than residents. It attracted sculptors, visual media “artists”, weavers, digital designers, anyone really with a crazy house idea and access to industrial 3D printers, bio-moulds, looms, or precision milling machines. Which wasn’t really a barrier by then. 

It was, understandably, a hit. They were deemed temporary habitations, houses for a season. Designed to be suitable for the summer, ninety one days (30 November to 28 February). Building regulations were relaxed, with the new requirements being that they were demonstrably stable, safe and habitable (and suitable for family viewing).

There were some truly beautiful creations. I rented one back then, which is what first brought me here. As you’d expect for essentially an art project, they were livable just, comfortable not really. Enough for a few weeks in fine calm weather, like upscale caravans and ultra-glamping. Despite the certification some melted or blew down, but that was part of the artistic excitement. A few came to resemble dissolving Dali-esque visions, which appealed to the more avant garde.

Improved techniques and materials created more robust and comfortable structures. And as costs came down the concept soon took on a life of its own. Rather than remaining a temporary artistic endeavour it became a bona fide construction industry. It was a boon for small independent local “habitation artists” (as some styled themselves), most of them with no architectural or construction training.

The construction sector fought back of course. But very effective local lobbying against what was called “Big Builda” and the “Construction Industrial Complex” helped convince the Council to ease regulations. They also saw it as a way to meet the rapidly increasing housing demands as more people moved to the region.

Of course there were some spectacular failures; melting, crumbling, or just plain blown down homes. And some early designs were borderline offensive. So regulations and requirements tightened up again. Still, home ownership became, almost, ridiculously affordable for many, as long as you didn’t expect a hundred square metres or a mansion. McNuggets some derisively called them.  But everyone unique at least.

What wasn’t foreseen was the impact on the psychology of home ownership. Houses are now, for many, almost just another consumer product with a replacement or better model acquired every few years. It’s creating a problem for recycling and disposal too. Some of the vacant ones are being shipped south to the Canterbury plains. Though most aren’t relocatable.

I’ve resisted that. But still I must admit to having four homes, each with a different style. I cycle through each house every three months. It is nostalgia really, since we don’t seem to have regular seasons anymore. I like to have that sense of history, ritual and regularity. I’ll need to do something soon though, my “summer” house is seven years old now, and I’ll either have to reconstruct it or get a new one.

Robert Hickson

By Dr Robert

Dr Robert Hickson is a futures speculator; that is, one who does not predict the future but examines trends, and history, to imagine what non-bleak futures may be possible. Author of the foresight blog Ariadne, he works with many New Zealand organisations to improve foresight thinking. He holds the view that in New Zealand, we don’t do enough looking forward.

The thoughts expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those held by the Industry Transformation Agenda.