Thom Gill has been practising architecture both in New Zealand and overseas for more than 20 years. Time spent living and working in London and Denmark has had a significant impact on Thom's understanding of architecture and has shaped the way he approaches projects in his Auckland-based practice Studio Nord.
As a young student, architecture offered Thom a practical middle ground between art and science. From his mentors at the University of Auckland, he learned to find beauty in the world around him and appreciate that everything can be architecture. His work as a young graduate taught him the practicalities of the job, and another salient lesson: the importance of rigour in architectural practice.
Further lessons about the relationship between a project and the urban fabric and about the time it takes to produce good architecture would come later, while Thom was working in the award-winning practice Haworth Tompkins in London. During his time there Thom was part of the team reconstructing the Young Vic Theatre, an important cultural institution in South London. The design, which took almost four years to be completed, involved producing a response to a complex and flexible programme, as well as continuous engagement with the community surrounding the theatre.
While living in London, Thom met Helle, his future partner in work and life. After leaving England the couple lived and worked in Copenhagen for a few years before returning to New Zealand in 2012, where they founded Studio Nord. Their own practice allowed Thom and Helle to explore an approach to architecture that placed value on community. Initially working in both his practice and at Jasmax, Thom later shifted to working full time at Studio Nord, where he has been involved in, among other projects, the winning entry for a competition to create New Zealand’s first Zero Carbon multi-residential building.
Unlike many Kiwis who come back home chasing the quarter-acre dream, Thom and Helle, who had enjoyed living in multi-residential buildings located in densely populated urban areas and surrounded by close-knit communities, wanted something else. This was confirmed after they bought a standalone house in one of Auckland’s most sought-after suburbs. Thom developed the clear conviction that there had to be a better way of doing things. “We’ve just bought a detached house,” Thom remembers thinking, “and we’re going to spend the rest of our lives maintaining it and mowing the lawn, growing old and being lonely. This is not a solution.”
Wanting to replicate what they had experienced while living overseas, and inspired by alternative housing models popular in Denmark and other parts of Europe, Thom and Helle began looking for like-minded people to develop a cohousing project. The couple realised that this was something they couldn’t do on their own, especially if they wanted to create a real community.
“We wanted our friends to be living with us,” says Thom. “We didn’t want a group of people we didn’t know because we didn’t think that would work.”
Their search led them to David Welch and his partner Georgianne Griffiths, who had been exploring ways to create a similar project of their own. The couples bonded over a shared vision and values, and while things didn’t happen overnight, they would eventually become the two founding families of Cohaus. The project, envisaged as a group of families designing and financing their own medium-density development, is the first urban cohousing community in New Zealand.
The skills and lessons learnt by Thom in the past have been essential for his new role in the Cohaus community. Not only is he the lead architect of this twenty-unit housing project located on the fringe of Auckland’s CBD, but along with David, he’s played a key role in the creation of a robust and cohesive community, essential for the success of any cohousing development.
Thom has also been playing the role of design facilitator, implementing efficient decision-making mechanisms and ensuring the end result truly reflects the values and needs of future Cohaus residents.
“At the start, you are beginning a community and the end result is an urban village, and villages don’t arrive out of nothing in no time.”
“What is special is working with people who are a very special sort of client, and helping them create a group and transform it into one that is able to make decisions, that has enough stability and internal coherence to allow for changes and circumstances to be absorbed,” explains Thom. “At the start, you are beginning a community and the end result is an urban village, and villages don’t arrive out of nothing in no time.”
Wearing so many hats in the development of Cohaus, which is currently under construction, occupies most of Thom’s waking hours. And while he has little time to think about what the future will look like, one thing is certain: the Cohaus experience and everything he’s learned from the process will continue to enrich his professional practice and inform his unique understanding of what architecture can be.
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