Walking your house through the land

Earlier this evening I was listening to National Radio, on which Bryan Crump was interviewing Ion Soervin about a Walking House project called N55. The audio of the interview can be streamed from Radio New Zealand’s website for about another week. The website for the house itself, complete with photos, is also available, as is a short video clip of the prototype house walking.

The idea of this specific house began in Denmark. The house is a module that can be lived in, but it has six legs attached and is designed to slowly walk through the landscape in a nomadic fashion, challenging the ideas that a dwelling should exist in a fixed place. The house is powered by solar cells and small wind turbines. It even has a wood-stove, and photos of the interior remind me of a typical New Zealand back-country hut. At present it’s more an art project and an engineering prototype, but as Mr Soervin was commenting, the plans to build it are available and they’re willing to help anybody who might want to build their own.

What I find at least as interesting are the ideas that are being expressed in association with this house. The radio interview covered some of these ideas, but they’re also discussed on the website. Considering it’s a house that’s able to move, it should be no surprise that its creators are very interested in concepts of property rights of land, and how they’re seen. Specifically, the very concept of exclusive fenced-off property boundaries are not conducive to a house that’s designed to walk. Not surprisingly, the creators are keen to provoke discussion about whether land should be divided up and sold in exclusive ways, rather than keeping land accessible for everyone.

The concept of land being accessible by everyone and not subject to ownership is not easily compatible with the modern ideas of dividing and selling, but it’s certainly not new. Even in New Zealand, before European settlers arrived, “ownership” of land was largely a foreign concept to the native occupants. It’s land, after all. Land is live in, not owned, and the idea of telling people that they can’t walk on it because somebody happens to own a particular rectangle of space is an abstract and foreign concept to grasp. Treating land as any other form of property helps to make things nice and simple for commerce, because it provides a clear way for people to be able to buy their privacy, but it doesn’t come without side effects that inhibit other things.

The differences in fundamental concepts of ownership probably helped contribute to some early misunderstandings where Maori natives “sold” land to European immigrants, without initially realising that the buyers’ concept would then be to fence of access so it was no longer available. (Without going into too much detail, it would obviously be misleadingly simplistic to say that all of New Zealand’s historical problems were for this reason, of course.)

Ideas about property ownership have a lot of relevance to New Zealand. Much of New Zealand is publicly owned and available to everyone. Much of it isn’t, however, and especially in recreational circles, access rights to privately owned land are a hot topic. In the past I’ve already written about how irked I’ve been that so much of the Kaimanawas happens to be fenced off from casual access due to exclusive private ownership, and I see this as an example of the negative side effects.

It’d be naive to expect that the ways of treating land ownership will radically change in the foreseeable future, and in many ways there are good reasons for it that help society to function. I do think it deserves continual consideration, however. Sometimes ideas just get so entrenched that people take them for granted. If I ever own a walking house, I’d like it to be able to walk further than the property that I can afford. It looks like a very fun idea, if slightly impractical for New Zealand in its current form.

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