State houses

Government financing rules meant that most private housing in the 1940s and 1950s was modest and closely and resembled state housing. During the 1960s, designs began to change, but brick and tile dominated.

In 1936, New Zealand elected its first Labour government. In an attempt to address the critical housing shortage, one of the new government’s first moves was to establish a Department of Housing Construction, headed by John A. Lee.

The aim of the Department was to provide good quality workers’ housing built to a high standard, rather than to minimum standards – ‘at least up to the standard of, and preferably better than, the houses inhabited by ordinary, typical citizens’.

Design and construction of state houses

A competition was held to design suitable housing. Among John A. Lee’s ideas were that houses should be built as individual units (rather than terrace-style housing) on their own plot of land, and should not all look the same, in order to avoid the appearance of mass-produced government housing (figure 1).

The brief required that, in every group of ten houses, each house was to have a different floor plan, and every house in a street was to have a different elevation and use different materials. Standard components such as joinery and fittings would be used in all houses to keep building costs low.

The competition produced designs from around the country. All the houses were generally rectangular in plan, and contained between two and five bedrooms. Roofs were generally simple hips or gables and tended to be moderately steeply pitched. Elevations were plain without decoration. Windows were small, multi-paned units, and doors were set back in shallow, recessed porches.

The original concept was for approximately 80% of the housing to be stand-alone, and the remaining 20% semi-detached. Planning allowed for land coverage of around four to five houses per acre. Each section would have an average street frontage measuring approximately 55’ (16.7 m), and a section size of 708 m2 or 0.07 hectare (28 perches). Rear sites were generally larger at around 1010 m2 or 0.101 hectare (40 perches or approximately ¼ acre).

The availability of cheap land close to existing urban areas and factories determined the location of many new state housing developments, but John A Lee also believed that housing should be located in attractive areas – he intended to avoid creating ghettos or slums. They were also located close to transport, and by including recreational and community facilities, they were designed to create communities.

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Development of state housing

The first state house to be completed under the new Labour Government was built in 1937.

The war years and the shortages of materials and labour severely restricted the government’s ability to continue to build state houses. At the end of World War 2, with the return of servicemen, the demand for housing that was already in short supply increased even further.

Through the 1940s, around 28% of new domestic building work was government-funded state housing (down from the 40% of the 1930s) with 30,000 state rental units built between 1935 and 1949. By the 1950s, after the demand for returned servicemen housing had been met, the levels of state involvement in new housing starts had reduced to less than 20% and this fell below 10% during the 1960s.

As a result of materials shortages just after the war, some pre-cut houses were imported from Europe. At the same time, the government launched a group building scheme, underwriting new houses built to government designs. The reported result was, according to one commentator, ‘multi-units made of cheaper materials, which lacked privacy’.

The government also built a number of large blocks of flats during this time (as the apartment blocks are generally still in public ownership, they are not covered by this website).

The aim of the early state housing programme of providing quality housing was generally successful, and in the 21st century, early state houses are still regarded as solidly constructed homes with good potential for renovation.