First Light

Story by Gemma Winstanley

Faculty of Architecture and Design, 2017

The First Light House

Aotearoa New Zealand is the first country in the world to see the light each day. This was the inspiration for the name of one of Victoria University’s most creative achievements, the First Light House.


The project started in 2009 in the ARCH383 paper, led by Professor Roy Fleetwood. The course was dedicated to research on solar energy and conceptual development of high-performance houses that integrate solar and energy efficiency technologies.

The course had the specific goal of preparing for the next request for proposals from the U.S. Department of Energy and its National Renewable Energy Laboratory for the Solar Decathlon.

The Solar Decathlon is a competition that challenges university teams from around the world to design and build full-size, solar-powered houses.

Four students from the class, Anna Farrow, Ben Jagersma, Eli Nuttall and Nick Officer had their proposal from the class published as a book, LifEstyle, and submitted as a proposal for the competition.

In early 2010 they became the first team from the Southern Hemisphere to be accepted into the competition.


The design concept for The First Light House was based on the classic Kiwi Bach, a 70m2 one-bedroom home that best exemplifies core 'Kiwi' values - a strong connection to the landscape, a hands-on ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality, and spending time outdoors.

The First Light House was created to be open-plan, but able to be customised to sleep up to four overnight guests.

Its six prefabricated modules are made of materials that were either recycled or could be recycled wherever possible as well as being locally sourced, low cost and low energy.

Watch the TED Talk

  • Building the home of tomorrow: Ben Jagersma at TEDxVUW

Engineering and Energy Efficiency

The dwelling was designed to produce at least as much energy as it uses. The system generates enough power to run the house through the year, storing more power during the sunnier months to use when sunshine hours are reduced.

Heating, cooling and ventilation are supplied by energy-efficient heat pump and heat recovery units as well as large opening windows for ventilation, creating a highly efficient and comfort-controlled environment.

All of this is monitored by an interactive monitoring system which displays and records complex data on the energy use of the house, designed by Leon Gurevitch from the School of Design.

The Competition

The First Light House was constructed in a Lyall Bay warehouse in the summer of 2010/11. In April the house was transported and assembled in Frank Kitts Park on Wellington’s waterfront for a two-week showcase before once again being packed into containers and shipped to Washington DC for the competition.

It was assembled in a record six and a half days before being put through a gruelling ten-day, ten-event competition taking place under the watchful eyes of the public at The National Mall.

By the end of the competition it had been placed first in engineering, first equal in both hot water and energy balance, second in architecture, third in market appeal and, most importantly, third overall.

  • <p>The First Light House in Frank Kitts Park, Wellington. Image courtesy of Guy Marriage. </p>
  • <p>The First Light House in Frank Kitts Park, Wellington. Image courtesy of Guy Marriage. </p>
  • <p>The First Light House in Washington. Image courtesy of Guy Marriage. </p>
  • <p>The First Light House in Washington. Image courtesy of Guy Marriage. </p>
  • <p>Inside the First Light House. Image courtesy of Guy Marriage. </p>

Continuing Influence

Following the competition the house was returned to New Zealand, where, after its extensive travelling it settled in Waimarama, Hawkes Bay.

The bach continues to earn recognition in New Zealand. In 2011 it won the award for Clever Wood Solutions in the Timber Design Awards and in 2013 it won the New Zealand Institute of Architects' International Award.

In 2012 the four student team leaders, and Victoria University Director of Building Science, Guy Marriage, formed an architectural services company called First Light Studio Ltd.

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