Around 500,000 visitors head to the historic Waitomo Glow Worm Caves, just an hour south of Hamilton, every year. Now, they can not only look forward to the spectacle of the world renowned cathedral-like caverns dotted with tiny luminescent creatures, but they’ll be tantalised as they progress towards their destination by a grand visitor centre reminiscent of a giant hinaki.
The new centre will be officially opened later this year as it gears up for the summer tourist season. Designed by Architecture Workshop Ltd for Tourism Holdings, it features a dramatic woven timber canopy constructed over a simple base building positioned between the arrival and exit pathways to the cave.
The lightweight canopy is fabricated from laminated veneer lumber (LVL) pine and prefabricated in Hunter’s factory in Nelson. The timber beams overlap in a unique way to create a timber net or ‘gridshell’. Christopher Kelly, principal of Architecture Workshop says the weaving of the timber structure recalls for the local hapu, a hinaki or Maori eel trap. The gridshell was calculated by Alistair Cattanach at Dunning Thornton Consultants. When peer reviewed in London, Happold Structural Engineers commented favourably on its strengths achieved with New Zealand pine LVL and an innovative soft pad connection with the over-cladding.
Inflated ETFE pillows are tethered over the gridshell structure like a tent fly. The long translucent pillows are structurally efficient in spans of four to five metres and follow the lines of the LVL ribs. The gridshell was designed to span the existing pathways and maintain connection for the visitors to the established native bush as well as provide some shelter in the journey to and from the caves.
The poupou, or tall carved carved totem, on the arrivals deck has been proudly refurbished by local carvers and was unveiled at a dawn ceremony last month as part of the blessing of the building.