Story: Housing

Page 5. Construction and materials

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House builders

Colonial houses were generally constructed individually by small firms for a client using a builder’s sketch or a pattern-book design. Sometimes a builder would buy a plot of land and construct a few houses as a speculation. Between 1892 and 1908 the Wellington builder Harry Crump built and sold 156 houses this way. Wealthier people often employed an architect to design, and manage the construction of, a house that reflected their individual needs.

Suburban expansion in the 1920s was a boon for house builders but few firms survived the onset of the 1930s economic depression. The creation of the government’s state-housing scheme in 1937 re-energised the sector and for the first time saw streets of houses being built at once. Under the 1950s Group Housing Scheme the government encouraged builders to construct new homes by pledging to buy those left unsold. This facilitated the creation of large private building companies that helped to build whole suburbs. Many provided ‘design and build’ services: clients chose a house from a pattern book and had it constructed on a section in a new or existing settlement. In 2012 individual builders and small firms were the industry’s mainstay.

Builders also extend and renovate existing houses, with some specialising in kitchen or bathroom renovations.

Ticky tacky boxes?

Overseas visitors have sometimes mocked New Zealand’s wooden houses, labelling them ‘ticky tacky boxes’ or worse. However, the suitability of wood as a building material was demonstrated during the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, when most of the buildings that collapsed were made of materials other than wood.


In Britain dwellings built of stone, brick and other permanent materials carried higher social status than those erected of (impermanent) wood. Some settlers therefore built brick or stone houses or used wood fashioned to look like stone. Other houses were made of cob (clay and straw walls covered in plaster) or sod (sun-dried turf laid on edge to create walls). Most roofs were either thatch or wooden shingle. Large earthquakes in Wellington in 1848 and 1855 saw many non-wooden houses collapse. Most wooden houses survived, as wood flexes with movement. Earthquake risk and ample supplies of timber meant wood became the dominant house building material. Brick survived as a material for chimneys and cladding.

Corrugated iron became a popular roof and cladding material from the 1850s as it was cheap and fire-resistant. Plasterboard replaced scrim (coarse woven fabric) as a lining material from the early 1900s and was manufactured in New Zealand from 1927. During the 1920s concrete and concrete blocks provided a viable alternative to wood. From the 1940s walls comprising glass doors and windows became a feature of modernist houses.

Other new materials have included fibrolite (asbestos) and fibre-cement cladding. The first fell from favour in the 1970s when it was discovered asbestos fibres were carcinogenic. The second became linked to leaky-building syndrome in the early 2000s; experts showed it was prone to leaking if not properly installed. Sheet metal, or ceramic, metal or concrete tiles continued to be the main roofing material.

House warming

The timber-frame construction of houses provided little insulation other than weatherboards and linings between the inside and outside of dwellings. This made for freezing and damp interiors in winter. The solution was to heat and live in one room – often the range-heated kitchen or the open-fire-heated living room – and pile on the blankets in the bedrooms. Since the 1970s new houses have had to include insulation material in ceilings and walls and in 2009 the government introduced subsidies to insulate older houses.

Construction method

Almost all New Zealand houses have been constructed using a two-by-four stud (50 millimetres by 100 millimetres) wooden frame or skeleton. Vertical studs run from the ground floor to the trusses, with a few diagonal studs and the weatherboards providing bracing. The trusses support the roof and further strengthen the house. Due to their earthquake resilience, wooden frames are also used in brick veneer houses. In many cases framing components are prefabricated and taken to a building site for assembly. Most joinery – windows and doors – is also fabricated off-site and shipped in.

  1. ‘Birthday party at the orphanage,’ Press, 14 May 1880, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Housing - Construction and materials', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 5 Sep 2013