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Inside Story: Designing Unitec's Wetlands

  • wetlands

Kevin Zhu was studying for his Masters in Landscape Architecture when he put up his hand to design a wetland for Unitec's new southern campus development.

Wetlands are increasingly part of any major urban development, as they capture dust, metals and pollutants contained in storm water runoff, so that the stormwater discharged into our waterways is clean. 

With the support of Matthew Bradbury, Associate Professor in the Architecture Pathway, Kevin designed a wetland that will capture water from the roof of Unitec’s new Construction, Engineering and Trades (CET) building, before being discharged into Oakley Creek. Developing a landscape concept for the wetland required working within the framework of the new campus master plan, and taking into account the existing landscape features, particularly the valley character of the catchment and the existing volcanic outcrop. 

“One of the challenges we faced during the design process was the physical constraints of this being a heritage site in which there was lava escarpment and middens from Maori occupation,” says Kevin. 

Kevin drew on a landscape concept that followed the character of a volcanic wetland, using the Hochstetter Pond in Onehunga as a geological and botanical model. 

Another challenge was convincing the project team, the project manager and the engineers,  of his design concept. “As designers, we tend to prioritise the aesthetics and connection to the surrounding environment, while trying to balance our design with functionality and practicality.” 

“So this was a very valuable experience for me. We basically function as project managers in classroom projects, but we operate as if resources are unlimited and we can dictate the project outcome. In the real world our outcome is constrained by the available resources. We also need to convince other team members to work with us to develop the  design.

While the project was time consuming, and sometimes frustrating, it taught Kevin to appreciate the importance of good communication, and the value of compromise.

It’s  a process that landscape architects working in a professional office would be familiar with, says Matthew. “We like to concentrate on design, but in reality that’s five percent of the job. Much of landscape architecture practice is going to meetings, going to site, talking to engineers, dealing with people telling you how to do things. The whole process of getting something built is reliant on getting on with other people, so a lot of successful design is about negotiation.” 

Kevin has since been employed as a landscape architect graduate in Hamilton. He says working on the project helped him land him the job.

“When I graduated with my Bachelor [of Landscape Architecture] I found that firms wanted people with experience, but as fresh graduates we need to gain experience through working. So it becomes a ‘chicken and egg’ problem.

“But this project gave me valuable industry experience, and I’m sure it helped me get a job. I’m now working on an urban project that involves the development of wetlands, which is exactly what I did at Unitec.”

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