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Dominion / Valley Road Apartments

18 Aug

Valley Road

Just 4km from Auckland’s CBD, and within the established Mt Eden suburb, the 5,200m2 site on the corner of Dominion and Valley road has swift and frequent public transport services through to the city, and is well catered for with supermarkets, food & beverage and a range of other services. Isthmus has been working with Panuku Development Auckland to create a benchmark residential intensification proposal for this site.

Currently occupied by a series of small single story warehouse and shopfronts, the development gently intensifies this under-utilised space by mediating the transition between the dual conditions of commercial strip and leafy residential suburb. Hybrid typologies for living and working promise to enliven the area.

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Four building blocks are arranged to maximise site potential, while fitting with its existing urban context. The blocks are arranged north-south to offer good solar access for each of the 102 units (one, two and three bedroom).

The buildings themselves reference the heritage and character of Dominion Road with the use of robust materials in a formal arrangement that has an overlay of ‘ad-hoc’ additions articulated on the exterior of the buildings to bring depth to the architecture. The design integrates extensive street character assessment and high levels of consultation with various stakeholders.


The project is currently lodged for resource consent with the Auckland Council and will be a notified application with a hearing date that is to be confirmed. It has been through consultation with both local board and the Auckland Urban Design Panel.

Dominion Road



Tokyo: Superdense Cyclecity

26 Jul



Tokyo is a patchwork city-of-cities, home to 13 million people (the greater urban agglomeration has a whopping 38 million). It is composed of multiple, distinct communities, a megalopolis designed from the scale of the tatami mat outwards.

The self-contained neighbourhoods are well organised around daily, weekly and monthly needs. Housing is mixed tenure, low rise and high density, which creates socially cohesive communities with people of all ages and stages living together.
In many places, even remarkably close to the main centres, Tokyo streets have the feeling of being in a small town. That special quality comes from the social and functional diversity of each neighbourhood, the tightly packed buildings (each different to the other), the narrow streets and lack of traffic.

Tokyo was rebuilt twice in twentieth century, once after the 1923 earthquake and again after WWII – each time to the same fine-grained underlying pattern. In an an urban design sense, it is almost totally unplanned. But the fine grain is remarkably coherent and consistent, and small scale development is guided by a constant set of practices and rules of thumb that have made it very adaptable to change.


Being vast, flat and dense, Tokyo is ideal for cycling. I cycled in big loops through and around this city of cities over three days, with my daughter Frances. We hired two bikes for a ridiculously cheap $3 a day each from a well organised municipal hire office and bike storage place. They had a basket on the front, a stand, integrated lock, front dynamo light and one gear.

Tokyo’s streets are not noisy, dirty or dangerous. Apart from some of the new commercial and industrial areas and the arterial routes we found, the streets largely belong to pedestrians and bikes. They are naturally calmed, narrow so it’s difficult for two cars to pass. Footpaths are uncommon – the road space is shared between pedestrians, cyclists, and the occasional car. Under these conditions, and with strict liability laws which hold the larger party financially responsible for accidents, motorists tend to drive cautiously.

Once off the arterial roads there aren’t many cars anyway. Car ownership in Tokyo is very expensive, and really, you don’t need one; there is a station five minutes walk from anywhere and an amazingly efficient system of cross city trains. For local trips, cycling just makes sense, and the suburbs are full of bikes.

14% of all trips in the city are made by bike. Literally everyone is a cyclist. From mums portaging two pre school kids to kindergarten on a electric two-wheeled family wagon to grey-haired ladies picking up their vegetables on a tricycle. Most use their bicycles for short trips around their neighborhoods where almost all daily conveniences can be found within a kilometer or two. Tokyo bikes are nothing special; more like a pair of sensible shoes than a set of Nike trainers, made in China and designed for utility. Not many are electric; there are no hills, and no one seems to be in too much of a hurry.

Who’d have thought that cycling around a megalopolis would feel so safe and relaxed.

Mid-Year Promotions

29 Jun

Over the years I’ve observed some characteristics of people that thrive in our studio culture.  These individuals are positive, proactive and collaborative. They are self starters. They take the initiative and are quick learners. But most of all, they are independent and self-confident.

In our vibrant studio there’s the opportunity to get involved in the work you want to do and to make your own opportunities. The following people have all progressed their careers this year, and are contributing at an even greater level. They are pushing themselves, getting out of their comfort zones and going the extra mile. Each of them embody our values of creativity, curiosity, authenticity and tenacity. 

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Children’s Garden – a living classroom

23 Jun


Recently Wellington City Council held an open day at the Children’s Garden in the Botanic Gardens. The project is still a little way off completion so this was not the offical opening – that will be in the spring.

The Children’s Garden is going be a hands-on, playful landscape where children are free to explore and interact with nature with a focus on learning through enjoyment about plants for food, fibre, construction and medicine.

“When the garden is fully up and running, there will be hands-on activities that help students understand the importance of plants in our lives. These education sessions will be based around themes of sustainability, interconnectedness and culture to encourage respect for the natural environment and the importance of plants – now and for the future.” – Councillor Peter Gilberd

Dealing with complex levels, and carefully working around exisiting trees, the design has woven a multi-layed sequence of spaces that will delight and educate children (and adults) for generations to come. A pavilion building for indoor education sessions is integrated into the garden.

This project is the largest investment in the Wellington Botanic Garden since the duck pond was built more than 18 years ago.


Isthmus ‘Matariki Day’ 2017

9 Jun


Several years ago we embedded an additional ‘public holiday’ into the Isthmus culture and calendar – we call it Matariki Day. We think that in the future all New Zealanders will celebrate an authentic, home-grown winter holiday of seasonal and cultural significance; a public holiday for Matariki rather than Queens Birthday.

We give all of our staff an extra day off, and in the evening hold a dinner in the studio for all whanau. This is our way of looking back and reflecting upon the successes and challenges of the previous year, as well as recognising all staff for their contribution. We tell some stories and look forward to the year ahead. We enjoy a uniquely New Zealand meal together, and afterwards, while the adults talk, the kids are kept busy with the ‘matariki tamariki design challenge’.

Our studios will be closed on the following dates:

Chews Lane studio, Wellington. Friday 23 June. 

Sale Street studio, Auckland. Friday 30 June. 



Special Operations

10 Apr
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Isthmus is a design studio founded in landscape architecture, but we define landscape in the broadest possible terms; we don’t think in terms of boundaries.

At the NZILA’s Small Urban conference last week Isthmus sponsored one of the keynote speakers. Marco Casagrande shares our no boundaries view of the world, understands the importance of place and the power of integrated design thinking. But he takes the idea of the ‘rebel alliance’ to a whole other level!

Marco is a pluralist, a man of many talents. He’s a writer, and an architect. An artist and academic. An environmentalist and (if you believe Wikipedia) a Bosnian mercenary. Based in Finland, the Casagrande Laboratory has a global reach; his work has been realised in 14 countries. And he’s exhibited no less than five times at the Venice Architecture Biennale!

Marco’s talk was a highlight of the conference. He spoke of the Third Generation City, the post industrial ruined city in which nature can never be truly shut out; “Nature grows back, through the cracks in the wall, sucking humans nature back into the wider nature”.

I was especially intrigued that he talked about the way he works as a designer being akin to the operational practices of the special forces. With a CV like his, that might not be just a metaphor.

“You don’t know what your doing when you start. It is not standard operational procedures. We don’t do it by the book, often we often operate outside of the rules. It’s like a small group being dropped out of a C130 Hercules and parachuting down to the ground to make things happen, ahead of the other forces.

You need courage. You need to hook up with local people and get local knowledge, otherwise the whole operation is doomed. You look for local guys who are connected, in our case connected with nature.”

Our new COO: Sam Irvine

4 Apr


We have invested heavily in our design-led practice over the last couple of years, and experienced rapid growth as our services are integrated across the studios. Our business has now reached the point at which we need to re-consider how we structure and manage the studios. As part of this we are growing the remit of our Senior Management Team and introducing the new position of Chief Operating Officer (COO).

The COO will lead our support team across Finance, IT, Marketing, HR and Admin as well as manage our relationships with external suppliers such as Legal, Insurance and Health & Safety.

Into the new COO role steps Sam Irvine, a business leader with proven capability in building a high performance culture. The theme of his career to date has been a passion for products and services which enable the use of technology to improve the way we do business and live our lives. Sam joins Isthmus fresh from Freeview where he spent ten years as Marketing Manager and then GM.
Sam is “passionate about working in ever changing, fast paced and fluid environments that are driven to uplift performance through people, profile and service offerings”.
Sam says Isthmus offers an “entrepreneurial environment with the vision to make a true difference in the lives of people. Of equal importance is a commitment to values and excellence. A passion for people is engrained in the culture.”
I’m really looking forward to working with Sam take our business to the next level.
Ralph Johns, CEO