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No. 24 (October 1958)
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HOW WE BUILT
OUR HOMES

Some years ago, in an isolated district in Northland, an effort was made to help Maori people to provide homes for themselves better than they lived in previously. In order to conserve the very limited finance upon which they could call, an effort was made to use cheap and locally obtainable material, and to use for the most part unskilled labour. As the work progressed, however, the unskilled labour very soon became skilful for the project in hand. The following story may be of some interest to those Maori people who consider that the financial hurdle incurred on a house built by the Maori Affairs Department or other orthodox methods may be beyond their resources. To repay loans on professionally built houses must require a regular income, which is not always available, and security of title, which is often most difficult to arrange.

What were the essential factors in the successful completion of the houses which have been built in this area?

1.

The employment of cheap materials, locally available.

2.

The necessary money, perhaps £300, to be available over the building period of two years, or less in the case of a relatively skilled man. Skill comes with practice. Enthusiasm must precede the commencement of the work.

3.

The utilization of second-hand materials, scorned by the wealthy, such as doors, windows, stoves, sinks, baths, and the other expensive requirements in hardware which bring up the cost of building. It is easily possible with patience, paint, and work to transform old windows, doors and other things into articles of beauty. A window is no less serviceable if it is sound, but old. It probably functions better than some modern contraption with ‘louvres’ and chromium plate—in wet weather anyhow!

4.

Patience, careful work, to be undertaken over weekends, on holidays, or between casual seasonal jobs, which are the common lot of working folk in the country. Money must be earned to live. That little extra bit from casual work can easily be spared for essential material for a house.

Our experience taught us that for success and easy accomplishment there should be certain desirable conditions. The site must be carefully chosen. What trouble and expense would have been avoided, for instance, if we had sited one house so that a hillside spring could have been tapped for an easy and permanent water supply. A sunny outlook with warmth, a good soil for gardening, a nearby beach, and good road access all make for success. As we grow old riding horses is tedious, if we need to carry flour and other

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awkward goods to the site on horseback. Then again, where the house site is not of easy access by road, the costs of transporting timber, heavy hardware, and metal are expensive in money and labour.

We first planned to build houses of timber, of which there was an abundance in the communally-owned bush. In the case of one house there were 28 owners to the bush. After many hui on the marae, all were agreed to work the timber, a small mill was set up, and it looked as if all those needing timber would have all they required for building. One of the 28 owners at the last moment changed his mind, and that was the end of the cheap timber.

INSTEAD, CONCRETE BLOCKS

Finally we decided that we should use the only other material cheaply available locally—the shingle and sand at the mouth of a nearby river. At first sight, this seemed to be an ambitious project. Concrete construction was criticised adversely, since the house would be cold and it would leak in the heavy rainfall. In any case, we had not the equipment to handle concrete. All these criticisms proved to be false. We used concrete blocks made on the beach. We put down a slab of concrete on the beach—a smooth floor on which to lay out the blocks to dry—and we borrowed a couple of ‘lightning’ block moulds, for blocks 18in. × 8in. × 6in. With konaki and horses we sledged the aggregate to the house site, and carted the finished blocks from the beach. Two men could build 100 blocks per day, and catch a few fish off the beach in between mixes. The mixture was 5—1 with some silicate of soda (Sharlands's egg preservative) to waterproof the blocks. This has worked well, since the houses have proved to be leak-proof. Sharlands's preservative became expensive, so we finally used 4-gallon drums of a similar and much cheaper solution. It did not take the adaptable Maori long to learn the tricks of a dryish mix, and excellent blocks were soon being turned out on the beach. Even today, often when jobs are scarce, the boys will turn out hundreds of blocks and sell them to the pakeha, who also has become block-minded, for sheds, pigsties, and even cottages like ours. In fact, the houses we built have become the fashion in the district, since the construction is within most people's ability and pocket. Many of our local cowsheds are built on the lines pioneered in this district by the commencement of our housing efforts.

We had our troubles to begin with until we learned the tricks of the trade. At first we were confused in the construction of a house, because corners, window openings, door openings, &c., need odd-sized blocks to fit the plan. Our supervisor made scale models, and marked the dimension on each scale block of the wooden model, so that even a child could tell which block fitted the wall. As a matter of fact, the house should be designed with walls and partitions of a certain suitable length, so that few odd blocks are required. Three sizes of blocks only are thus necessary for plain house designs. This makes it much easier for the amateur builder, since there is little delay in matching the blocks for corners, openings, chimney space, and other odd places such as porches.

CHEAP WINDOWS AND FLOORS

We bought our steel windows with frames at a second-hand scrap-metal yard in the city. Old buildings are constantly being demolished, with perfectly good steel windows discarded as scrap. In each case, the windows for the whole house cost £7 per house, compared with frames and sashes in wood which would have cost £124 plus cartage. The steel windows, with sashes glazed, cost in cartage £3, so we saved considerably in this respect. Steel doors also were used, and these were included in the price of £7 for the windows. Doors and windows came from demolished banks and churches. The Gothic arches of the church windows were discarded and the bank windows no longer look grim and formidable. They are high and broad, and take up much wall space, letting in plenty of winter sun, and allowing us to open the house wide in the summer time.

Windows and doors were set into the walls of the building as construction proceeded, and were tied into the concrete construction. A minor amount of scraping and new paint made them as good as new. The children broke a few panes of glass in the windows, but stern measures resulted in less repair in later days.

GOOD FOUNDATIONS

Our houses do not show the foundation faults which have become obvious in some of the less carefully built sheds about the district. It is important to build a solid foundation, for one must remember that each block weighs 35lbs and that over every foot of wall ten blocks are superimposed on the foundation, plus the weight from superstructure. We were meticulous in making a 15in. base to the foundation, with an 8in. wall, 15in. high, reinforced with twisted strands of fencing wire, old grader blades, piping and sundry pieces of steel which abound in most areas longinhabited and lie around old whaling stations,

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This is the first house built under the programme. with Mr Wehi Heta in the foreground.

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Picture icon

This is completed house is identical with one on the title drawing.

bush mills, and other places where heavy machinery has been used. Air vents were inserted in the foundations, and one of the crafty neighbours invented a mould with the aid of a penknife, teatree sticks and a board. He turned out perfect ventilators, and the cost was about threepence for the cement. They were designed especially for the job, and are unique examples of what the Maori can do in the way of improvising when he sets his mind to the job.

The foundation walls were 8in. wide and covered with malthoid to act as a damp course. The 6in. wide blocks were built on the foundations, leaving an internal ledge of 2in. to take the ends of the sleepers off the floor. Intermediate blocks for the floor construction were cast in place, using box timber for moulds. Wooden topplates were made of 6in. × 2in. rimu, and fixed in position with bolts cast into a reinforced encircling concrete cap, which thus completed the top of the wall construction. Reinforced concrete lintels were built over each opening for windows, doors and other openings. No crack has developed in these houses.

SLOW PROGRESS

We got enough good iron and quite a few studs from old buildings bought for a song, showing again that a quiet search about the district saves pounds in construction costs. The chimney blocks were bought, since the moulds for these are a standard pattern, and it was not worth while to improvise on the chimney.

Floors were put down after spraying the second grade timber with mettalix and power spirit. Once a family moved in, work proceeded at a faster pace. The finish of the inside of a typical house took 2 years. Enough money had to be earned to keep the pot boiling and time was limited when workers could give a few days to building. Ceilings were lined with hardboard, partitions were placed where the plan showed, the H.W. service, sink, hand basin, and shower were installed, and a concrete tank built to catch rain water. Drainage for the waste water was carried out to a sump, with herring-bone soakage pits for the spreading of the effluent.

Can you envisage our slow and hesitant progress? As time moved on we became more confident in our ability to cope with new problems. The boys sometimes took a job on wohk which was like ours, and soon learned sufficient to manage our own difficulties. We were often dismayed. Today we can sit in the sun on the front porch and help others to solve the problems which gave us food for thought.

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Legislation was passed last year about the savings accounts held by the Department of Maori Affairs for intending home-owners. It is not uncommon for contributions to a savings account to be made by persons other than the one for whom the account is kept (for instance, by other members of the family). The legislation lays down that in such cases, the money is still held for the person in whose name the account is kept and that it is to be used as he directs. It would be an impossible task to distribute the money to all who contributed and it should now be clearly understood that the Department of Maori Affairs has no such responsibility.

* * *

The New Zealand Worker's Union, at their annual conference last June, decided to leave unfilled the position on their management committee fallen vacant through the death of Mr R. Tutaki. The Union hopes that a Maori representative will be found to take his place on the executive next year.