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Home Improvement with Michael BoturHome Improvement with Michael Botur

Home Improvement: How Far Our Houses Have Come In 800 Years
Aotearoa has a shorter history than almost any other country. Even Easter Island was settled 500 years before us. We haven’t had roofs over our heads for long so it’s amazing to take a step back and consider how rapidly we went from mud huts to McMansions. 

Dwellings of a wooden frame insulated with leaves, reeds or palm fronds were the norm for the tangata whenua when they first settled NZ around the year 1200. Because the first New Zealanders were Pacific Islanders, likely from Tahiti/east Polynesia, the first dwellings built here resembled the type of fale/fare you would find in the islands. For 600 years, most whare were built with raupo reeds and harakeke/flax over a wooden frame while the walls were often supplejack covered in clay, under a thatched roof, or at least they were by the time Captain Cook’s people started documenting Maori methods at the end of the 18th century.

New Zealand’s oldest standing Pakeha building, the Kerikeri mission house, didn’t come about until 1821. We could’ve used about a thousand houses of that quality, because dwellings made of raupo and thatching were extremely flammable and it was only the Raupo Houses Ordinance (New Zealand’s first building regulation) which saved the country from being burned down as fines and levies limited the number of raupo houses.

Contrary to the quarter acre and two grassy yards we expect these days, the preference for individual houses on their own allotments was a new concept brought by British/European immigrants and was different to the less-private communal housing system of NZ’s indigenous people.

It was only the late 19th century when cities started to rival the countryside in terms of population. Semi-detached houses came about in the 1880s and some terrace housing was built in the main cities from the 1880s as land supplies tightened. In urban areas, we went through more trends than a high school, with 1-2 bedroom cottages popular before the turn of the century, then 4-5 bedroom villas, before the 20th century brought about California bungalows, art deco and modernism.

In 1931 the building of houses here was still barely regulated, so the Napier earthquake that year was a huge shake-up (and that’s not a cruel pun: over 250 people died – this is NZ’s deadliest natural disaster). In a city of vulnerable brick structures, almost every brick building with a large open internal area crumbled. Improved building standards were needed, so the Buildings Regulations Committee and Standards New Zealand were established the following year. The Building Act 1991 followed, then the Building Code, the Building Industry Authority, and today we have the Department of Building and Housing (set up in 1988 and badly needed in response to the leaky homes crisis beginning 1995). Today, the MBIE covers building regulations around everything you can think of including product assurance, stability, protection from fire, hazardous materials, escape routes, moisture, safety of users, energy efficiency and a million other aspects.

If you still want to see a shack smeared with mud – er, I mean, an historic gem deeply important to the preservation of our colonial past – there are just a few hundred in the country, including several in Canterbury. One of these is Coton’s Cottage, originally built in 1864/65, damaged in the 2010 Darfield earthquake, deconstructed to its foundations then completely rebuilt – using the original clay.
Eew. Give me a modern home any day. History is muddy.

Michael Botur has published journalism in NZ Herald, Herald on Sunday, Sunday Star-Times and Mana and he writes a lot of fiction. He moved to Whangarei in 2015 and was ecstatic to be able to afford a house here.

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