Māori had centuries of building experience in New Zealand constructing whare (dwellings), meeting houses, pātaka (storehouses) and other structures, mostly out of timber.
Thirty-two ‘mechanics’ (a general term for users of tools) arrived in Auckland with colonial governor William Hobson from the Bay of Islands in 1840. They included eight carpenters, two masons, two sawyers, one brickmaker and one bricklayer. In 1862 there were 153 builders and carpenters in Christchurch.
A growth area
Early authorities, such as the New Zealand Company in the 1840s, and the government in the 1870s, offered immigration assistance to builders. Settlers needed houses and shops, and skilled tradesmen were needed to build larger public buildings such as post offices, pubs, churches and cathedrals. Tenders were let, and self-employed builders and contractors put in bids. Carpenters employed by builders were so sought-after that they were able to insist on improved working hours – eight hours a day, Monday to Saturday.
As towns grew in the 1870s and 1880s, there was a boom in suburban land speculators, builders and companies supplying building materials.
Subdivisions and speculators
Farmland on town edges was bought by companies and builders. Firms such as the Remuera Land and Building Company of the 1880s were speculative enterprises rather than actual building operations. Four land-speculation companies were registered in Auckland between 1908 and 1919, with 14 more between 1922 and 1925. The companies bought land, subdivided it and sold the plots. Shareholders were mainly builders, lawyers and accountants.
Most builders constructed houses or public buildings on contract. Some also speculated by buying plots, building houses and selling them. In Wellington Harry Crump built 156 houses in Mt Cook and Newtown between 1892 and 1908. In the 1920s prospective house-buyers could take out cheap housing loans from the government – and builders encouraged people to do this.
The communist menace
In the 1920s the government promoted home ownership in the suburbs as a way to create stable communities and good citizens. A. Leigh Hunt, vice-president of the Greater Wellington Town-Planning Association, commented: ‘If a decent man is unable to secure a home for himself and family, he is likely to become Bolshevik in his ideas and a menace to the community.’
In Auckland, during the 1920s suburban housing boom, many small private building companies were set up, including Bungalows Ltd (1923), Construction (1925) and Garden Homes Construction (1928). Shareholders were typically builders and urban investors. Few had any real capital and their level of business expertise was not high. The biggest company of this period, Suburban Homes and Investments, a public company founded in 1927, lasted only two years.
Depression and recovery
Economic depression hit the building industry in late 1927, and it took 11 years for the value of building work to reach pre-depression levels. From the late 1930s, when the government accelerated its commitment to building state (public) housing, there were more contracts for builders. The commercial building sector was also boosted by local and central government investment in infrastructure. Residential construction became a smaller part of total building work during the 1950s and 1960s as the growth of industry and services demanded factories, offices, schools and hospitals.
Some ambitious building contractors – especially those involved in large speculative residential developments – incorporated as private companies, but they did not survive the 1930s depression. The few publicly listed building companies operating in New Zealand in the 1920s and 1930s were largely confined to contracts to build offices or public buildings. Most building companies remained small family businesses or partnerships. Yet a handful of businesses were headed by more ambitious people who wanted to build companies as well as buildings.