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 older 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 DIY hut builders.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 Permotat 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.
From left: John DeLury, left, and his team take a break while building Upper Lords Hut on Stewart Island; It takes about four tons of material to build a hut; Old Ghost Road’s Lyell-Saddle Hut is now complete
“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 more than 1000 huts scattered around the New Zealand backcountry.
Like Pynenburg, Dobbie believes the New Zealand Forest Service four- and six-bunk huts, known as the S8I 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.