Building in a new land

By - , Build 126

New Zealand’s first settlers were slow to depart from their traditional building methods, despite suitable local materials being available. This gradually changed, as a result of both earthquakes and education.

Figure 2: New Zealand labour force from 1871 to 1911.
Figure 1: Number of dwellings in New Zealand from 1858 to 1911.
Figure 3: Edward Dobson’s opening address to the School of Engineering, Canterbury College, 26 July 1887.
Figure 4: The building materials of Otago and south New Zealand generally by W.N. Blair (copy donated by Thomas Turnbull to the RIBA library).

In 1839, the New Zealand Company had a dream – to create ‘kitset little Englands’. These would provide a society with all the required skills, from the wealthy landowner through to the craftsman to the servants essential to everyday life. To support this, they offered free passage to labourers (and their wives and children under 1 year and over 15 years old) with occupations including ‘sawyers, cabinet-makers, carpenters, … brickmakers, lime-burners, and all persons engaged in the erection of buildings’.

In practice, everyone was expected to work, whether they were landowning or working class. Mr TM Partridge, who had arrived on the ship Adelaide on 7 March 1840, wrote home from Port Nicholson, ‘you would laugh to see officers, doctors and dandies digging, thatching and chopping with great frenzy’. About himself he wrote, ‘I carpenterise, and carry logs, and cook, and go to council without detriment to my gentility.’

Traditional ways took precedence

By 1843, the settlement of Wellington had 109 carpenters serving a population of 3,808 living in 386 ‘houses built on European plan’ and 491 ‘houses built on Native plan’ (probably raupo).

Regional construction specialities from the United Kingdom (mud brick from East Anglia; cob and pisé from Scottish lowlands, Midlands, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset; framed construction from southern England, West Midlands and East Anglia) were used by immigrants from those areas, often despite the availability of more suitable local materials. Canterbury and Central Otago lacked timber, so cob, sod and wattle and daub were used. Although Wellington’s earlier settlers made bricks, earthquakes soon created demand for good supplies of timber.

In Dunedin, the family of the Reverend Thomas Burns started in a 4-bedroom, prefabricated, wooden manse. He described it in his diary as ‘the most conspicuous and best aired house in all Dunedin’. By late 1848, he had begun to build a house in stone, which was finished in late 1850 and occupied by the family. Structural problems, including uneven settling of the foundations, weak lime mortar and the lack of exterior plaster, contributed to it being abandoned by 1865. Apparently, the skills and knowledge were not available locally for this Scottish-style building. The house was demolished by the late 1870s so William Larnach could build a guesthouse on the site.

More houses, but fewer people in them

As the population increased, so did the number of houses. Between 1858 and 1911, the average growth rate was 5.6% (see Figure 1). In contrast, the number of people in each house fell – from 5.3 persons per house in 1864 to 4.6 in 1911. Using recent Censuses for comparison, the number of dwellings increased on average by 1.4% per year (from 1,276,329 in 1996 to 1,471,749 in 2006), with an average of 2.8 people per household in 2006.

As the economy developed, employment also grew. From 1871 to 1911, the building and construction sector grew from 2,847 people or 3% of the workforce to 39,005 people or 9% of the workforce (see Figure 2). The percentage changes reveal the boom of the 1870s, lower levels of activity in the 1880s and a substantial growth in the years from the mid-1890s to the First World War. Although many of these immigrants would have arrived with existing skills, they needed to use them in different situations and with new materials.

Early guidance to new settlers

Guidance was available to new settlers to support the use of local materials. The weekly Otago Witness and the Otago Daily Times published a series of articles in 1862 on ‘different styles of cheap building’ – pisé, adobe, concrete. An editorial commented:

‘Our object in thus entering into details has been to lay the advantages of each of these three styles of economical building clearly before our readers, in the hope that some may be induced to give one or other of them a trial, as we feel convinced that it only needs a fair trial to make the superiority of these systems of building abundantly manifest. In the neighborhood of town, or where lime is readily procurable, concrete is undoubtedly the best; the farmer or runholder in the interior will find the pisé the cheapest and most convenient; and the digger will, by means of the cheap and simple “adobe”, be able to have a warm and cozy cottage, instead of a damp and chilly tent.’

Local newspapers included advertisements for tools and materials, along with tradesmen for hire. In 1851 Lyttelton, Robert Nankivele advertised he could build in ‘wood, pisé and cob’, while in 1854, a contractor was available in Auckland ‘to undertake the erection of Pizey House (terre pisé)’. In Nelson, Charles Mason and John Woodhouse were advertising to build in cob or pisé.

Two key players in early construction

In the early development of construction in New Zealand, two names stand out – Edward Dobson and William Newsham Blair.

EDWARD DOBSON – ENGINEER AND EDUCATOR

Edward Dobson was an engineer, surveyor, explorer and lecturer. He was already a published author before he arrived in New Zealand in 1850, with four books in the ‘Weales Rudimentary Series’.

As Canterbury Provincial Engineer, he was involved in a range of works but was also interested in education. He gave public lectures, such as a series of four on ‘foundations’ at the Christchurch High School in September 1866. These lectures were judged ‘the first attempt to make physical science a branch of regular instruction in this colony’. For participants, 10 books published in London were recommended, two of which Dobson had authored (Art of building and Foundations and concrete works).

Dobson moved to Australia in 1869, returning in 1876. In 1877, he published Pioneer engineering: a treatise on the engineering operations connected with the settlement of waste land in new countries. After a partnership with his son Arthur dissolved in 1885, Edward followed his interests in education. That year, he gave 12 lectures on building construction at Canterbury College and, in 1887, provided the opening address for its School of Engineering (see Figure 3), where he lectured part time until 1892. Dobson died in Christchurch on 19 September 1908, aged 89.

WILLIAM BLAIR – ENGINEER AND AUTHOR

Scottish-born William N Blair was unable to find work following his training in civil engineering, so emigrated to New Zealand in 1863, aged 23. He was immediately employed to help develop infrastructure to support the recent discovery of gold. His later jobs included District Engineer of Railways, consultant to the Dunedin City Council on issues from gasworks to the town water supply, and assistant and then engineer-in-chief of the Public Works Department.

Blair’s The building materials of Otago and south New Zealand generally was published in 1879 (see Figure 4). It was the first New Zealand book to provide research and measurement-based data on different building materials.

The book started as articles dealing with building stones in the Otago Daily Times on 13 July and 28 September 1875 and timber on 31 October 1876. These articles were also given as two addresses to the Otago Institute in 1876. Forty percent of the 239-page book deals with stones, bricks, concrete and roofing slates; 18% with limes, cements and aggregates; 39% with timbers; and 4% with metals – a balance that perhaps reflected a desire to build in more permanent materials.

Figure 1: Number of dwellings in New Zealand from 1858 to 1911.
Figure 2: New Zealand labour force from 1871 to 1911.

Businesses used Blair’s book for comparative advertising, since no other technical documentation was available. In the Otago Daily Times of 18 December 1888, Mr James McDonald was delighted to point out that Blair concluded the ‘Waihoa Limestone (which is now called the Milburn Limestone)’ – ‘cannot be pronounced good’ and that the Oamaru limestone that he used was ‘the BEST LIME for building purposes hitherto discovered in Otago’.

Blair was also interested in industrial development, giving addresses in Dunedin and Christchurch. Showing the benefits both of national statistical data and the industrial exhibitions, he documented current activities, including export and ‘home’ industries. He set out the wide range of mineral, vegetable and land resources that were available for future industrial development and advocated the value to the national economy of import substitution, tourism and even the hydro-electric energy potential of the rivers. He concluded that locally manufactured building materials should supplant imports of timber, cement and roofing, with opportunities also for glass, iron and steel. He died in Wellington in 1891 after a lengthy illness, aged 49.

Dobson and Blair, along with others, helped create the environment that would lead to the development of New Zealand-specific educational materials.

Figure 3: Edward Dobson’s opening address to the School of Engineering, Canterbury College, 26 July 1887.
Figure 4: The building materials of Otago and south New Zealand generally by W.N. Blair (copy donated by Thomas Turnbull to the RIBA library).

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Figure 2: New Zealand labour force from 1871 to 1911.
Figure 1: Number of dwellings in New Zealand from 1858 to 1911.
Figure 3: Edward Dobson’s opening address to the School of Engineering, Canterbury College, 26 July 1887.
Figure 4: The building materials of Otago and south New Zealand generally by W.N. Blair (copy donated by Thomas Turnbull to the RIBA library).

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