Early building legislation

By - , Build 122

Building legislation was first introduced into New Zealand’s provincial councils in the 1840s, and its progression provides an insight into the building problems and aspirations of early European settlers.

Figure 1: The gradual spread of Auckland building controls as the city grew. ‘City of Auckland’ 1866 map published by Vercoe & Harding. (Source: NZ Map 18, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.)

Legal codes controlling the design and construction of buildings date back to at least the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi of about 1780 BC. Over the years, tragic events regularly resulted in new rules or changes to existing legislation. The 1666 Great Fire of London led to the Rebuilding Act 1667, which established requirements on the types and construction of buildings, particularly with walls between buildings to limit the spread of fire. The legislation evolved, and its descendents were in force when settlers left for the new colony of New Zealand.

New Zealand building legislation

New Zealand legislators were concerned with the effects of fire on citizens and their property, and the first ordinance dealing with fire entered the law books in 1842. The following 20 years saw building legislation introduced into provincial councils from Auckland to Otago (see Table 1).

All the legislation, except for the City of Auckland Building Act 1856 and the Dunedin Building Ordinance 1862, is based on square feet. These two pieces of legislation use the ‘square’ (defined as 100 superficial feet) as a measure of floor area – although it is not found in the building control legislation before or after these specific years. This term has dropped out of common use in New Zealand, but was still used in Australia until metrics took over.

Although the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake (magnitude 8.2) had a major impact on Wellington, it was not until the 1888 Canterbury earthquake (magnitude 7.1) that South Island European settlements were made aware of these natural forces. One consequence was the promotion of stone and brick buildings to resist fire in Auckland, Dunedin and Christchurch.

Each piece of legislation has its own story, and together they provide an insight into the building problems and aspirations of early European settlers.

Raupo Houses Ordinance

Raupo, from the same family as the biblical bulrush, is a plant common around the shallow edges of lakes and swamps. Easy to collect, dry and store, it can be readily assembled into useful buildings (see Build October/November 2005, page 103).

The Legislative Council passed the Raupo Houses Ordinance on 3 March 1842. Concerned with the ‘lives and properties of persons residing in towns’, it levied £20 per year on any building constructed wholly or in part of raupo, nikau, toitoi, wiwi, kakano, straw or thatch, or a fine of £100 for any new construction.

The Ordinance was first applied in Auckland (effective 16 November 1842). After a disastrous fire that started in a bakehouse with a thatched roof in the same year, the Wellington Borough Council requested the ordinance be extended to Wellington. This occurred nearly a year later (1 October 1843), but it took until 1851 to be applied in Dunedin and Port Chalmers (1 January 1851), and it was finally enforced in Lyttelton and Christchurch on 1 February 1853. Chapman’s New Zealand Almanac 1860 reported it as only applying in Auckland, but it actually remained in force throughout the different provinces until its final repeal in 1878.

The Ordinance wasn’t necessarily enforced with financial penalties. In Dunedin on 10 July 1858, Chief Constable John Shepherd brought a case against settler Archibald Douglas. However, it was adjourned ‘for the purpose of allowing the defendant time to remove the thatch from the roof of his house’.

Auckland – City Building Act 1854

From its earliest European settlement, Auckland was a city of wood and raupo. The first City of Auckland Building Act 1854 was short lived, being in force for just under 4 months before being replaced by the 1856 Act. This was replaced by the 1858 Act and the 1866 amendment.

As the central city grew, so did the areas covered by Schedule A of successive Building Acts. Shading has been added to an extract from the 1866 map of the ‘City of Auckland’ to highlight the coverage of the different Acts (see Figure 1). The circular lines show quarter mile radii from the new Post Office in Shortland Crescent. The basic street patterns are still recognisable in Auckland today, with Queen and Shortland Streets covered by the 1854 Act and Albert Park included in the 1866 amendment.

The requirements of the Acts also evolved, including the size of footings, external and party walls, heights and placement of chimneys. The 1856 Act also established minimum timber dimensions for given spans of floor joists, beams, rafters and purlins, and the 1869 amendment made the building proprietor as well as the contractor liable for any penalties.

Table 1: Early New Zealand building legislation.
Province Year Title
National 1842 Raupo Houses Ordinance 1842
Auckland 1854 City Building Act 1854
New Plymouth 1858 Thatch and Straw Building Ordinance 1858
Otago 1862 Dunedin Building Ordinance  1862
Canterbury 1867 Christchurch Fire Prevention Ordinance  1867
New Plymouth 1867 Town Buildings Roofing Ordinance 1867

New Plymouth – Thatch and Straw Building Ordinance 1858

Described in its short title as ‘An Ordinance for imposing a tax upon buildings wholly or partly constructed of raupo, thatch, or other like materials, within the Province of New Plymouth’, this ordinance replaced the national Raupo Houses Ordinance 1842. Although it maintained the annual tax, it reduced the penalties, expanded coverage from ‘building’ to ‘every house, building, shed, stack or pile’ and established boundaries to suit the growing city.

Later legislation, the Town Buildings Roofing Ordinance 1867, required the use of ‘metal slate earthen tiles or other uninflammable [sic] material’ for roofing but was repeatedly suspended to support the jobs of ‘settlers in the bush’ who made shingles for the town roofs.

Otago – Dunedin Building Ordinance 1862

Although fire was an on-going issue for the early citizens of Dunedin, it was not until 1862 that the Provincial Council considered building legislation. The passage of the legislation was slow, with local merchants concerned about the impact on their businesses. The legislation was finally passed in 1864.

The 2-year progress to the finally amended and implemented ordinance pales into insignificance when its 131-year longevity is considered – it was not finally repealed until the passing of the Building Amendment Act 1993.

Canterbury – Christchurch Fire Prevention Ordinance 1867

Although the Christchurch City Council dates back to 3 March 1862, the only building matters for which it created bylaws during its first 6 years were for the removal of house slops and the suppression of nuisances. In 1864, a council committee recommended a ‘Building Ordinance for the City of Christchurch similar in its provisions to the [London] Metropolitan Building Act which has formed the model for all Building Acts for large towns’.

The council accepted this recommendation and established a committee whose work was encouraged by a major fire on 4 June 1864. They recommended the Ordinance cover all public houses and communal lodging houses in every part of the city, as well as all buildings in an area with boundaries somewhat equidistant from Cathedral Square – the area in which the night-soil collector did his rounds.

It took until 1867 for the Ordinance to be passed. It decreed that every new building to be erected within a certain area of the city should have external walls of ‘brick, stone, or other incombustible material’ and roofs made of ‘slates, tiles, metal’ or other material similarly fire-proof.

Local building bylaws after 1876

Early building controls in some areas also dealt with structural and safety issues, but it wasn’t until the national Municipal Corporation Act 1876 that local councils had the power to establish their bylaws to deal with building issues in general. Those bylaws formed the base for today’s building controls implemented in the New Zealand Building Code.

Figure 1: The gradual spread of Auckland building controls as the city grew. ‘City of Auckland’ 1866 map published by Vercoe & Harding. (Source: NZ Map 18, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.)

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Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.

Figure 1: The gradual spread of Auckland building controls as the city grew. ‘City of Auckland’ 1866 map published by Vercoe & Harding. (Source: NZ Map 18, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.)