There was no conscious attempt to apply scientific methods to problems of the building industry before the disastrous Hawke's Bay earthquake in 1931. This event, however, revealed the necessity for the establishment of an experimental station to deal with indigenous problems of the building industry and, in particular, with the fundamentals of design in relation to earthquake forces. A Building Regulations Committee set up by the Government a few days after the disaster reported to Parliament in June of the same year, emphasising both the importance of preparing an interim uniform building code to take account of earthquake forces and also the need for research into our problems as a background for a permanent code. This led to the establishment in 1932 of the New Zealand Standards Institution and to the appearance in 1935 of the first Standard Model Building Bylaw. In the same year a deputation from the building industry met the Prime Minister of the day and presented him with a scheme for investigating engineering and architectural aspects of earthquake problems, involving the establishment of an experimental station. A Building Research Committee of D.S.I.R. was thereupon appointed and, somewhat later, F. W. Furkert, formerly, Engineer-in-Chief, Public Works Department, was appointed interim Director of Building Research. On his advice the Government invited Sir Reginald Stradling, from the United Kingdom, to visit New Zealand and report on the country's requirements in this regard. Sir Reginald presented a monumental report, the most notable feature of which, however, was the request for an annual expenditure of some £250,000 to meet the needs of the country. The report was the subject of much interdepartmental discussion and after the target figure had been whittled down very considerably, the whole proposal was eventually wrecked, through lack of agreement on the salary appropriate to a director of the proposed establishment.
In the meantime, however, other building problems were making themselves felt, particularly following the establishment of the State Advances Corporation and its subsequent accumulation of case histories of building failures. In 1944 the Corporation asked D.S.I.R. to investigate the cause of the sudden increase of mould growth on the ceilings and walls of so many houses under its jurisdiction. The solution of this problem by the Dominion Physical Laboratory, which took some three years, was followed by investigations into the importance of thermal insulation and of more efficient heating in domestic dwellings. At about the same period Dominion Laboratory, D.S.I.R., became interested in problems of paint and its behaviour on New Zealand timbers and under New Zealand climatic conditions. This research has developed into quite an important section of the new laboratory at Gracefield.
Other Dominion Laboratory activities which relate to building problems are – pozzolanic replacement of cement in concrete; metal corrosion, notably copper and brass; and, more recently, developments in concrete technology based on light-weight aggregates. In 1945 the heavy clay industry contributed funds towards the establishment of a Pottery and Ceramics Research Association, located first at Wellington but later transferred to Gracefield, Lower Hutt. Here the behaviour of local clays for brickwork and of local sands for mortar has been examined; further, a scheme for reinforced brickwork has been carried to the pilot stage.
In 1947 the Forest Research Institute at Rotorua was set up as a branch of the New Zealand Forest Service. Laboratories devoted themselves to investigations relating to the utilisation of native timbers, such as their equilibrium moisture content under New Zealand climatic conditions, as well as their nailholding properties. The Institute has also played a large share in the development of timber preservation.
These scattered and very little coordinated attempts to assist the building industry have at no stage been directed by a central organisation having a wide field of reference, such as the United Kingdom Building Research Station at Watford. Since the Stradling report, attempts have been made a number of times to interest successive Governments in the matter, but with no success. The classic reply has always been—“what contribution is the building industry itself prepared to make towards any experimental establishment”? In an endeavour, therefore, to awaken interest in some scheme for financing a research station, the Master Builders' Federation in 1957 called together representatives from a comprehensive number of organisations in contact with the building industry. The response from most of these organisations was not encouraging; but eventually the New Zealand Master Builders' Federation and the New Zealand Institute of Architects decided to initiate, without any other financial assistance, a technical information service for the benefit of members of the two organisations. Thus was founded, in 1959, the Building Research Bureau of New Zealand, which has since made a significant contribution to the fund of technical knowledge accumulating for the benefit of the industry.
Recently the Bureau has developed a proposal for the establishment of a National Building Research Council, as an incorporated and autonomous body for the control and prosecution of building research to meet the needs of the country. A draft Bill framed around this scheme has been presented in 1965 to the Government; and representatives of the industry have recently been invited by the Government to meet officers of Ministry of Works and D.S.I.R. to discuss this proposal, along with other related matters, and in due course submit a report to Cabinet. The industry is hoping that, as a result of these negotiations, New Zealand will be removed from the stigma of being the only modern country in the world without at least one experimental building research station, responsible for coordinating investigations into technical problems over the whole field of building and civil engineering.
by Lyndon Bastings, B.A.(N.Z.), M.SC.(N.Z., CAMB.), D.SC., F.R.S.N.Z., Director, Building Research Bureau of New Zealand, Wellington.