The underrated state house

By Mark Broatch In Lifestyle

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Andrea Stevens.

More than 100,000 state houses were built, many in the 1930s and 40s. Andrea Stevens, co-author of a book on the homes, tells Mark Broatch how they have been adapted by a new generation to suit 21st-century life.

How extensive was the original state house building programme?

The first Labour Government came in about 1935 and started designing them within a year. The first one was opened in Miramar in 1937. That programme continued until 1949 when the first National Government got in. Within five or six years they had sold off about a third of what they’d built. But they did continue building them, slightly differently. They reduced stud heights to 2.4m and used new materials such as soft board and fibre cement weatherboards.

They were built for working people?

[The Government] wanted to raise the standard of living and wanted to attract migrants. There was a lot of criticism about inner-city slums – why would a migrant want to leave one city slum and come to another? And it was about creating healthy communities. That was the ideal. It didn’t always happen. The first model suburbs were often quite expensive; the rents weren’t quite as cheap as [the MP responsible] John A Lee wanted them to be. So they had to cut back.

They were built with the goals of simplicity, quality, egalitarianism, affordability and community-mindedness. Did they manage to achieve those?

Some suburbs did. In my introduction I talk about it being quite backward-looking, because they are based on the English cottage. By then, however, the international style was quite influential and houses were opening up to the sun. So they are a bit of a hybrid.

They always had the living room on the northern side, which was a huge leap ahead from the bungalow and villa, which was about formality to the street. The toilets came inside, and they tried to put the kitchen and the bedrooms to the east, so they became more aware of climate in that sense.

But on the outside they’re cloaked in an old-fashioned cottage aesthetic, because there was a stigma in those days [about living in a state house], so the architects designed them to blend in.

Many were built with private loans, contractors and architects.

The State Advances Corporation would lend money to approved plans, and often those were a derivation of a state house plan. The 30,000 built in the first Labour Government’s term were paid for and rented out by the Government, but they were built by private companies. Fletcher would tender, smaller builders would tender, and they tended to group 20 houses maximum in a contract, so that it was not just the big companies that could build them. It was also a Keynesian way to stimulate [the economy] post the Depression. As much as possible, they tried, rather than importing, to create local industries to supply it. So the windows are a classic: all of them were locally made, to a standardised template, and that’s the most common way of identifying a state house.

The book suggests state houses are underrated.

And I know why: they’re not quite as pretty, they’re pared back, simpler. If you understand why that happened – the context around some of the war shortages, and the fact that it was for the working class – and understand the garden suburb, I think people will be able to appreciate their true value. Savage Crescent in Palmerston North is protected now, Hayes Paddock [in Hamilton] is protected, streets in Marewa in Napier.

Before some key parts of Auckland get changed [in the unitary plan], it would be good to see some of those places reviewed for their architectural and town-planning merit.

What are the pros and cons of the state house?

They are really solid. They are usually in a neighbourhood that has some cohesion, the context feels good, the scale is nice. From the negative point of view, the window sills are very high. They are a Northern Hemisphere archetype. From Kaitaia to Bluff they just rolled out the same stuff. There’s no verandah; in New Zealand everyone needs a verandah, an outdoor space protected from either the sun or the rain.

How do people typically improve state houses?

The biggest change is in the kitchen. It’s gone back to what it was, in a way. The working-class kitchen was a real social space. The dining table was in it, and that’s where the family congregated. One of the criticisms was that the architects had turned the kitchen into the domain of the wife; her little work area near the laundry, so she could do all her domestic chores. And the dining room was put into the living room, which was quite a middle class thing to do.

Now everyone seems to enjoy cooking or interacting over food. So the kitchens have had to be opened up to accommodate that social life. Often they needed to be added to, because they are quite tight. And because we live in a temperate country, the backyard is another room. So we’re creating decks. When you do that, it makes these houses seem a whole lot bigger.

BEYOND THE STATE: NEW ZEALAND STATE HOUSES FROM MODEST TO MODERN, by Bill McKay and Andrea Stevens (Penguin, $75).

For an extract from the book which features a dramatic state-house renovation in Westmere, see this week’s feature story Art of the state.Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content

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