Drawing on personal experience to design for self-isolation

Architecture involves creating spaces that support our wellbeing and human needs, but how does an architect manage living in a two-bedroom apartment in self-isolation, when you have a family of four and two of you have tested positive and two tested negative?

Dr Charmaine 'Ilaiū Talei: "How can we create spaces that promote well-being when you’re isolating in homes in which there is limited space?” Photo: Elise Manahan

Dr Charmaine 'Ilaiū Talei, who joined the School of Architecture and Planning as a new senior lecturer this year recently had first-hand experience of that situation.

She and her family had planned to be on a plane to Auckland from Brisbane in January but could not board the plane because the airport’s pathology centre was overwhelmed with cases early January, and they hadn’t received their test results on time to check-in. “And then we received positive results after the plane had left,” she says.

She and her husband took their apartment off the market and they their two sons moved back into it, sans any furniture.

Dr 'Ilaiū Talei is of Tongan ancestry, a registered architect and a research specialist in Pacific architecture. Her self-isolation experience highlighted the practicalities and difficulties of managing home spaces during a pandemic, which she’ll be drawing on it in one of her design courses this year.

“That whole experience brought back to me early ideas around Pacific spaces, how we define spaces. When we were self-isolating my bed sheet became the space that I worked on, and it became my office. I told my sons they could do whatever outside of it, but this is my workspace. It was just a sheet, but they respected that.”

Initially her sons had tested negative, so managing the space included managing separation and potential transmission of the home – which involved them staying in different rooms, regular cleaning of every surface anyone touched, and wearing masks in their home. “Having to restrain from physical touch and not being able to hug our kids was perhaps the hardest for us as parents.”

Outside their former Brisbane apartment from left to right, Inoke Talei, Charmaine 'Ilaiū Talei, Luke Talei and Samuela Talei. Photo: Jerry Li.

“We found an intangible way of dealing with self-isolation, but in the design paper I’m teaching this semester, ‘Living with Covid; home isolation to resilience centres’, I’ll be asking students to explore innovative solutions that could be intangible or more permanent.

“We’ve gone through pandemics before, so how have we managed in the past and what can we learn from that? Are there more permanent solutions for the impact of Covid – how can we create spaces that promote well-being when you’re isolating in homes in which there is limited space?”

“I want students to understand how the lived experiences are useful design reference points. This is something I learned through doing Pacific architectural research, in which I looked at my own experience and background to inform architectural ideas and practice.”

“If Covid is the new normal for the next foreseeable years, then how do we make home isolation possible, given the restraints of existing homes?”

She and her family arrived in Auckland in early February, and she says they were allocated an MIQ space that exceeded expectations.

When Dr Charmaine 'Ilaiū Talei completed her masters at the University of Auckland in 2008, she was the first Pacific Islander at the University and possibly the world to receive a research-based Master of Architecture. She went on to complete her PhD at the University of Queensland in 2016.

Her research is Pacific focused, and her work experience spans urban and remote Australia, Solomon Islands, American and Western Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Aotearoa New Zealand.

Along with teaching and research, she will continue working as senior architect at Guymer Bailey Architects (GBA) in Brisbane, where she has recently been working on the expansion of the second largest correction facility to be built in the State of Queensland.

She’ll also be working with the firm, in collaboration with the University as Project Team Lead of the Tauranga Moana Courthouse.

This is a new and innovative project, in which the new courthouse will enable the Te Ao Mārama model, based around restorative justice and therapeutic jurisprudence, she says.

It is being designed in partnership with iwi, the local community, the judiciary, the legal profession, court staff and other court users. Within the larger design team of architectural, interior design and landscape specialists, Dr 'Ilaiū Talei is the co-design lead during advisory and concept design phases.

“It’s an historical architectural project, because it involves engagement with mana whenua, right from the beginning,” she says. “Through this project we hope to design an innovative courthouse that will enable services that support restorative justice, within the courthouse.”

At the School of Architecture and Planning she’ll be working and teaching alongside Lama Tone and Dr Karamia Muller, both experts in Pacific architecture, and with whom she studied with at the School. “I think there's just something so exciting that's happening right now at the School in terms of research in Māori and Pacific architecture, and I want to be a part of that.”


Media contact

Margo White I Media adviser
Mob 021 926 408
Email margo.white@auckland.ac.nz