If there’s a Santa Claus...

HOME Magazine NZ - - Source - Text Dou­glas Lloyd Jenk­ins

As well as reg­u­larly ex­pe­ri­enc­ing his own per­sonal hous­ing cri­sis, our writer pon­ders the coun­try’s cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and how his­toric crises have, some­times, clev­erly been re­solved.

If there’s an adult equiv­a­lent to the ex­cite­ment ex­pe­ri­enced by a small child await­ing the ar­rival of Santa Claus, surely it must be the thought of a new house project. For­get the out­come of a Lion’s tour or the slog of yet an­other Amer­ica’s Cup chal­lenge, noth­ing quite pro­duces the same qual­ity of sleep­less­ness as nights spent re-imag­in­ing a new house af­ter iden­ti­fy­ing it as the one of your fu­ture. Of course, it takes a fair amount of ef­fort to ar­rive at that point. Weeks of search­ing and view­ing, rest­less nights fig­ur­ing out how ma­jor struc­tural change might turn a tor­tured wreck into some­thing live­able. Even when you spy that spe­cial thing – a sleep­ing beauty – the re­sult is re­ally some­thing quite un­re­solved. Once found, you lie awake think­ing about its struc­ture, then fall asleep to dream dé­cor, only to wake and be­gin the process all over again. And, as with the prom­ise of Santa Claus, there’s al­ways that is­sue of doubt – have I been naughty or nice? Will Santa re­ally come or, in New Zealand’s over­heated prop­erty mar­ket, will some­one else just have a lit­tle more re­source to snatch it from you? Then again, there’s al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity that per­haps all the po­ten­tial buy­ers at the open home, hav­ing stared at the sag in the floor or the wa­ter-stained ceil­ings, might sim­ply melt away and Christ­mas will come early. Like many peo­ple, my ears perk up when ra­dio or tele­vi­sion com­men­ta­tors ven­ture opin­ions about the cur­rent hous­ing cri­sis. Per­haps, be­cause of all the is­sues that face con­tem­po­rary New Zealand, this one is about some­thing I un­der­stand – houses. That is, I un­der­stand the de­sire for your own space – not least be­cause, at the most ba­sic level, home own­er­ship al­lows you to ex­press your­self through style with­out hav­ing to seek the con­sent of a skep­ti­cal land­lord. I un­der­stand, too, that be­ing in the po­si­tion to buy a house is a priv­i­lege avail­able to fewer and fewer peo­ple. But – by gosh – just think­ing about it is fun. I’ve been think­ing about the hous­ing short­age, too, but from a dif­fer­ent an­gle, be­cause the lit­tle 100-square-me­tre house of which I cur­rently dream was built in the midst of one. New Zealand has been wracked with a num­ber of his­toric hous­ing crises. Ki­wis with even the most rudi­men­tary un­der­stand­ing of his­tory know that in or­der to deal with the 1930s hous­ing cri­sis, the first Labour gov­ern­ment built the first se­ri­ous state-hous­ing sub­urbs. The next hous­ing cri­sis hap­pened just af­ter the end of World War II, when re­turn­ing sol­diers mar­ried. Ea­ger to get the baby boom off to a fly­ing start, they went look­ing for houses – all at once. The war years clearly weren’t a huge house-build­ing pe­riod. Although the Na­tional gov­ern­ment of the time re­luc­tantly kept build­ing state houses, even that wasn’t enough. Any­thing and ev­ery­thing was be­ing snapped up. Even at their low­est point of pop­u­lar­ity, vil­las were in de­mand – al­beit in or­der that they be mod­ernised (only to be re­stored by a later gen­er­a­tion).

In part, how the gov­ern­ment dealt with the build­ing cri­sis of the late 1940s was to limit the size of a new build. The cri­sis wasn’t then so much about avail­able land but ma­te­ri­als. Putting con­trols on house sizes en­sured there were enough ma­te­ri­als to go around while, at the same time, main­tain­ing build­ing qual­ity. This in it­self was vi­sion­ary – small, well-built homes might eas­ily be ex­tended later and they usu­ally were. My cur­rent dream house was de­signed and built by a builder in 1947. As any­one who has looked at the prop­erty files of an old house will know, builders sub­mit­ted a sin­gle sheet of draw­ings con­sist­ing of a plan, el­e­va­tion and a sec­tion. When it was built, this house was 10 to 15 years be­hind the times and its stream­lined Art Deco styling was the very thing that young ar­chi­tects were rail­ing against as the very worst sort of house – all style and not a shred of hon­esty. Per­haps this is what so cap­tured my at­ten­tion? How­ever, there are many ways to achieve a goal and although reg­u­la­tions de­manded an econ­omy of size, they also dis­cour­aged un­nec­es­sary dec­o­ra­tive de­tails, so houses be­came more mod­ern by de­fault, stripped back and eco­nom­i­cally planned around needs rather than tra­di­tions. Although our pri­or­i­ties have changed – who to­day wants a laun­dry iden­ti­cal in size to a bed­room? – the small houses of old re­main ex­cel­lent mod­els for what might be achieved with­out an enor­mous foot­print. The real-es­tate agent hands me doc­u­men­ta­tion for auc­tion day. He is at pains to point out that the fire­place and chim­ney are “not com­pli­ant with cur­rent reg­u­la­tions” and that “their pres­ence in the prop­erty in no way in­fers that they are com­pli­ant”. I kneel in from the hearth and peer up like a mys­ti­fied child. I fig­ure the chim­ney is fit for my pur­poses and this be­ing his off sea­son – well, who knows. Per­haps...

Ben Daly worked with 66 square me­tres on a tight bud­get in a for­mer Welling­ton fac­tory to cre­ate a thought­ful dwelling for two.

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