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Community build marae-size adobe wood-fired oven

Media release: NorthTec tutor and Moerewa community build marae-size adobe wood-fired oven at Tiria Falls

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NorthTec tutor Grant Steven is working with the Te Rere I Tiria Community Trust in Moerewa to provide training in sustainable building and horticulture and enhance the local community’s health and wellbeing.

The trust has land adjacent to the Tiria Falls, which cascade down into the best swimming hole in the town, and has worked with local people on Community Max schemes and under Grant’s tutelage to construct an organoponico raised bed garden, a wattle and daub shed which will one day house a composting toilet for visitors to the falls, and most recently, a large wood-fired adobe oven at their site.

Grant calls the oven “Toha Forno”. “My Maori name is Toha which means to distribute or share, and “forno” is Italian for wood-fired oven. There are one million of them in Italy and cooking in them is an important part of the culture.”

The Tiria Falls oven represents the culmination of more than a year of research and development during which Grant has been instrumental in building 14 adobe wood-fired ovens.

“This is my biggest oven so far and has a one-metre diameter firebrick floor. It should be capable of cooking three medium-sized pizzas at a time, every four-five minutes. But I did not design it for pizza, I wanted it to be a baking and roasting oven so I made the dome a couple of inches higher to make more heat for baking and roasting but also to allow the door to be higher for big pots and roasting dishes. The door is also very wide at 50cm and gives you plenty of space to move pizzas around in.

“On top of all this I also made the oven floor very thick to get a seven-inch thick slab of thermal mass which will provide plenty of heat for baking the bottom of loaves of bread. The walls are quite thick too, which will hold a lot of heat, and combined with floor this should provide five hours of baking time.

All that cooking capacity was relatively cheap to provide. “The beauty of the adobe ovens is that they are relatively inexpensive and quick to build,” said Grant. The Tiria Falls oven cost $400, with just under half of that cost attributed to the fire brick oven floor, put in because of its intended use as a public oven. “The fire bricks will stand up to harsher treatment.”

Grant’s aim was to build an affordable, marae-sized oven at the Tiria Falls site. “A guy rang me a few weeks ago and said he was building the same size and shape of oven out of firebricks. He said the materials cost him $3000 and it was 3 weeks of full-time work requiring advanced brick laying skills.”

In contrast no such advanced skills are required to build an adobe wood-fired oven. Grant has also found that the process of constructing such ovens has a very positive impact in itself. “It’s a great team-building exercise. Seven or eight people can build one in a day or two and then go around the community helping each other to build their ovens. They bring people together, much more so than a BBQ. People are just entranced by them. Demand for the courses has just taken off and I am being asked to run workshops all over Northland.”

Calling the ovens ‘pizza’ ovens does them something of a disservice he says because they are great for cooking a whole range of food from roasts to bread and desserts. They’re great for opening up shellfish and can even be used for drying fruit when they’re cooling down. “It takes one-two wheelbarrows full of wood to fire up the oven and that gives you five hours of baking time. Once you get the oven up to the right temperature it’s easy to keep it at that temperature. Cooking in this way

Te Rere I Tiria Community Trust administrator Susan Henare said that the next step is to build a whare-style shelter over the oven to keep the rain off and to provide protection from the sun for the person who is stoking the oven. There are also plans to put a composting toilet in the shed that Grant has built using natural materials on-site, and to establish a microhydro scheme to provide power. This will take the site back to its historical roots as the flax mill that used to be there used hydro power to provide electricity.

The main focus for the trust has always been cleaning up the waterway that feeds the falls and the swimming hole so that the community can safely enjoy its natural resources. The trust has worked with local farmers to help put up fences to prevent stock from wandering into waterways and has also done some riparian planting. “We just try to awhi the community. Our aim is to clean up the waterway all the way to Taumarere so that there is clean water for all the community to use.”

Meanwhile Grant is keen to teach as many people as he can about natural building and the virtues of wattle and daub and to pass on his knowledge about building wood-fired ovens.

“A fireplace used to be the heart of the home but a wood-fired oven can be the heart of a community.”

NorthTec is the Tai Tokerau (Northland) region's largest provider of tertiary education, with campuses and learning centres in Whangarei, Kerikeri, Rāwene, Dargaville, Kaikohe and Kaitaia. NorthTec also has over 60 community-based delivery points from Coatesville in rural Rodney to Ngataki in the Far North.


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