Villas were the most popular new home design in New Zealand from the 1880s through to World War 1.

The villa design arose as the development of New Zealand cities and towns demanded more than the single or two-room cottages of pioneer settlement.

It became the favoured design for new houses filling the first suburbs in the colonial towns and villages in the 1880s as urban populations dramatically increased.

The villa was almost the exclusive style in use until its demise at the beginning of World War 1. The earliest villas were simple in form, but grew in complexity and decoration over time as the construction industry responded to demand from increasingly affluent consumers.

Typical features

The villa’s most distinctive feature was that it was typically constructed almost entirely of timber – including fixtures and fittings – with a metal roof. There are also villas constructed of brick masonry, and some have other types of roofing such as clay tiles or slate.

A floor plan and the desired accessories could be chosen from a catalogue by a prospective owner and be assembled from prefabricated elements by the local tradesman builder. Some villas were architect-designed and a number are likely to have been built ‘on spec’ as suburbs developed. Limited documentation was required for the construction of what was, in essence, an assembly of prefabricated parts.

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The introduction of public transport in the form of horse-drawn, steam and finally electric trams allowed larger towns to develop further from the centre, and new villa subdivisions were widely advertised. Today, these subdivisions are regarded as central city and their extent reflects the growth that took place in our cities before World War 1.

While predominantly single-storeyed, there were a significant proportion of two-storeyed villas in the more affluent suburbs, such as Herne Bay in Auckland or Kelburn in Wellington, or where there was already pressure on available land to build on, such as inner Wellington.

The design of the villa responded to the local conditions. In his book Old New Zealand Houses 1800–1940, Jeremy Salmond noted that it was more common for villas to have expansive verandas in Auckland, cast iron fretwork was more common in Dunedin while two-storeyed narrower villas featured more prominently in Wellington.

The villa also provided a vehicle for the wide range of decorative timber elements able to be produced with the steam-powered woodworking machinery introduced in the 1860s. In the 19th century, there was no shortage of quality native timber to work with.

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Original villas lacked services that are now taken for granted, such as gas and electricity, town water supply, and sewerage. As these services reached New Zealand towns and cities, villas were modified to incorporate them. In many villas, the service areas have been expanded and modified at least once and possibly several times.

Other common modifications have included installation of plasterboard linings, and ‘boxing in’ of verandas – often in ways that do not match the original character.

For more, see common villa modifications.

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Villas now

From about the 1980s, villas saw a resurgence in popularity. Renovation of these houses is now a significant part of the building industry’s work. Many have already been renovated to a good standard – in fact, a house condition survey conducted by BRANZ found that the condition of houses built before 1920 was, on average, no worse than houses built in the 1960s and 1970s. In many cases, these renovations have been extensive, sometimes leaving little of the original character except for the street facade.

However, many of the country’s 85,000 villas have yet to be upgraded and renovated. Typically, they are colder, draughtier, their spaces have a poor relationship to sun and site, their service areas such as bathrooms are not well related to bedrooms and may lack what we consider to be modern amenities.