Story: Housing

Page 4. Interior planning and living

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The interior planning of houses provides insights into how people experienced home life.

Cottage life

In 1850 James Parr described his Christchurch cottage. ‘It is lined with totara. …The ceiling is calico. The floor is white pine …In one corner of the kitchen we have two shelves to put our crocks on. Our garden is fenced in with galvanised wire and a cape broom hedge in front. The back is a native hedge. We have some cabbages, beans and peas in our garden beside 2 walnuts, 2 cherry trees & a plum.’1


In a one-room cottage everything occurred in a single space: cooking, eating, socialising and sleeping. A bed might line one side of the room, with a table near the open fireplace, which was used for cooking and heating. Often perishables were hung from ceiling and wall hooks to protect them from rodents. A long-drop toilet was constructed in the garden. In a two-roomed cottage the second room became a bedroom. A four-roomed cottage would also have a separate kitchen. In most cases the front door opened into the parlour, which acted as a thoroughfare to the other rooms.

The kitchen was often the social hub of the house. This was partly because the cooking fire or range kept it warm, but also because the parlour was a formal living space. Cottages could easily be extended through lean-to additions or converting roof cavities into bedrooms.


The villa saw the introduction of a central hall, demarcating public from private spaces. The (public) parlour was at the front of the house, while the (private) bathroom was at the back. Some cottages also adopted this plan. With the introduction of sewerage systems in the 1890s, the long-drop was replaced by a back-of-the-house flush toilet. Open fires remained the main source of heat, and coal and wood were the most common fuels – the distinctive smell of coal or wood smoke was the scent of still winter evenings in most places.


The bungalow was more open-plan than the villa, with a spacious entry hall and double doors connecting living areas. The parlour became the (more relaxed) living room; the scullery became the kitchenette, equipped with modern conveniences such as electric cookers; and the bathroom moved from the back to the middle of the house, reflecting a greater cultural emphasis on hygiene.

Design and living

In 1947 the architect Ernst Plischke wrote the book Design and living. He strongly criticised the cramped and sunless living spaces of New Zealand houses. Plischke called for new (modernist) open-plan designs to create larger living spaces that were orientated towards the sun and garden. The book was innovative in questioning New Zealanders’ living arrangements and was influential in spreading modernist ideas to the general public.

Modernist houses

The state-house floor plan re-orientated the living room towards the sun; the days when the parlour or living room was routinely street-facing were over. The modernist house introduced open-plan living arrangements that integrated kitchen, dining and living areas, enabling housewives to be more involved in family life. The bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry remained private spaces. The modernist house was also characterised by built-in furniture that saved space and inhibited clutter. Plate-glass doors that opened onto patios and decks served a new enthusiasm for indoor–outdoor flow.


The open plan became the template for houses thereafter, but innovations continued. From the 1950s the garage was incorporated into the house, signalling greater private car ownership rates and the idea that the car was an extension of domestic life. During the 1960s and 1970s a separate family or rumpus room for children’s play became fashionable.

Since the 1990s average house sizes have increased while section sizes have shrunk, reflecting the greater cost of residential land, the growing tendency for domestic life to be lived indoors, and demand for amenities such as en-suite bathrooms. With the rise of large televisions and gaming devices in the 2000s, some houses included media or entertainment rooms. One feature that has largely disappeared is the open fire, a casualty of clean-air legislation and householders’ preference for more efficient heating sources such as heat pumps.

The garden

The garden was a pivotal element in home life. The flower garden facing the street was for public display. The fenced and private back garden comprised a vegetable garden and perhaps a small orchard and chicken run, all of which made important contributions to household economies. It also had a lawn for recreation and often a shed where men could tinker and make things. The 21st-century fashion for smaller sections, and a growing householder preference to buy rather than grow fresh produce, has made the vegetable garden less common than it once was.

  1. James Parr, letter to his parents, 26 August 1859, ‘James Parr’, qMS-1628, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Housing - Interior planning and living', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 April 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 5 Sep 2013