Story: Housing

Page 3. Style and form

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In Victorian Britain, housing was ranked by style and size: from the mansions of the aristocratic elite to the villas of gentlemen landowners, and down to the cottages of the labouring poor. New Zealand never had houses on the scale of mansions. The large houses of the wealthy were more often known as ‘big houses’ or (in rural areas) homesteads.

Does size matter?

Cottages were graded according to size. The smallest houses were called ‘cottages’, the next step up were ‘superior cottages’ and the bigger still were ‘houses’, often further distinguished as ‘substantial’ or ‘of more pretentions’.


The first houses were all cottages. They had a rectangular or square floor plan and a gabled or hipped roof. The smallest had one or two rooms, with a central door and double-hung or casement windows either side. These referenced no particular style but larger dwellings fell within the English colonial idiom, some of which sported Georgian or English regency features. Many houses were left unpainted, but those that were painted used stone-like hues – creams, fawns and greys – with corrugated-iron roofs painted in red oxide.


A villa was a suburban house that was larger (at least four or five rooms) and more expensive and ornate than a cottage. Villas usually featured two- or four-pane double-hung windows and could be built in Gothic or (neoclassical) Italianate styles.

From the 1870s bay windows became a feature of both cottages and villas, while machine moulding of wood provided for increased ornamentation. The villas of the affluent were not only bigger but often included highly decorative elements such as pressed metal ceilings and stained-glass windows. These windows provided a degree of domestic privacy while also showcasing the owner’s wealth and taste to guests and night-time passers-by. Most houses continued to be painted in stone-like hues with darker tones – particularly reds and greens – used for trim work.


Aside from the homes of the wealthy, few houses had verandahs until the 1860s, when they became a marked characteristic of New Zealand dwellings. As well as providing shelter from summer heat and winter rain, a verandah offered a place where muddy boots and sodden coats might be removed before going inside. It was extremely well-suited to local conditions, but became unfashionable with the ascent of 1930s English revival styles. Verandahs were revived in the neo-colonial houses of the 1970s and remained a feature of some 21st-century houses.

Californian bungalows

After the First World War the Californian bungalow superseded the villa. The style featured low-pitched gabled or hipped roofs, fanlight and casement windows, and at least one porch or verandah. The stud (ceiling height) was lower than that of the villa, saving construction costs and making the houses easier to heat. Bow windows and carrara (moulded decorative plaster) ceilings in a variety of designs were common attributes. Bungalows were often painted white or beige, with dark green or brown trim.

English revival

Many architects were dismissive of the bungalow’s American origins and chose English revival styles for their clients. These included arts and crafts, Georgian and English cottage styles. The last idiom became synonymous with the 1930s Labour government’s state-housing scheme, whose houses are still widely recognised by their 45-degree-pitch tiled roofs and three-pane casement windows.

Spanish mission and moderne

Another Californian import was the Spanish mission style. It featured arched entrances, stucco exteriors and ceramic half-drainpipes as decorative elements. Near-flat roofs were hidden behind parapets.

Let the sun shine in

With larger windows and the absence of overhanging eaves, the Spanish and modernistic styles were designed to let the sun enter interiors. An advertisement for a modernistic block of flats in Auckland declared: ‘Every living room has almost an entire wall of windows which fold back and leave wide, uninterrupted areas open to light and air, and to satisfy our thirst for sunshine.’1

The moderne style also included flatroof lines and stucco exteriors painted in white and pastel hues. Interior spaces often featured colourful art deco ornamentation. The fashion for health-inducing sunshine led to larger windows and made the sunrise motif a popular element in stained-glass windows.


The modernist style was introduced from Europe in the 1930s. It eschewed ornamentation and promoted clean straight lines, large picture windows and glass doors to let in light and facilitate indoor–outdoor flow. Architects such as Vernon Brown worked to create a New Zealand version of the modernist style that referenced the simple forms of the shed. These houses featured creosoted weatherboards and white-painted trim.

Neo-colonial to Mediterranean styles

During the 1960s the neo-colonial style became fashionable. These houses featured cottage-like gabled roofs and finials (a tall, narrow projection at the top of the gable), spacious verandahs and exposed timber ceilings and floors. During the 1980s neo-colonialism gave way to post-modernism, which incorporated a diverse range of forms, colours and materials to create whimsical-looking houses. In the 1990s Mediterranean-style houses with flat roofs and minimal eaves were popular.

21st-century eclecticism

In the early 21st century no one style dominated housing design, with new houses reflecting classical, bungalow, modernist, Pacific and other influences. House colours continued to reflect changing fashions and taste; in the early 2010s the stone-like hues of the colonial period were popular.

  1. ‘Cintra’, Building Today 1, no. 1 (1936), p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Housing - Style and form', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 5 Sep 2013