Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Houses for the people

Although the acuteness in the shortage of houses is somewhat less now than it was year or two ago, the urgency of the housing question is still a matter for the serious attention of both Government and municipal authorities, and shows no real disposition to quit troubling. In fact, the failure which has in reality attended the State scheme for solving the housing problem leaves the door wide open for suggestions promising a solution which is sound financially and practicable in form. Under such circumstances the opinions of an architect who has had experience in an official capacity with the State housing scheme in England and in the erecting of cottages under the Irish Labourers' Cottage Act should be interesting.

Mr. John Mitchell, who was formerly of the firm of Mitchell and Watt, for many years architects to the Auckland Education Board, recently returned to the Dominion after being absent for eleven years in Great Britain, and since his return he has been taking observations and making inquiries into the question of housing.


In the course of an interview on the  subject this morning, Mr. Mitchell  remarked surprise and pleasure at the splendid evidences of the progress that Auckland has made in the past eleven years. The notable improvement in the roading of the city., the replacement of old by new buildings in the main streets, and the introduction of the Canadian and Californian bungalow style of domestic architecture, were matters upon which he made special comment. “ After being away from Auckland for so long I appreciate more than ever the natural beauties that endow Auckland City," he said. "The people of Auckland should be very proud.of their habitation and correspondingly jealous of it—doing nothing to mar these beautiful natural features, and leaving nothing undone to enhance them."


Coming io the scientific, artistic, and economic  laying out of building sites, and the areas considered "sufficient when intensively cultivated," Mr. Mitchell remarks that it is interesting to note the trend of building operations and the corresponding values of land for dwelling sites. Takapuna. for instance, recently required  1/4 acre as a minimum, Otahuhu requires 1/6 acre, while Mount Albert is satisfied with 1/8 acre. The English Housing Act makes provision for 1-1/2 acre "as being so much better than that which formerly prevailed."


"So far as Auckland -City is concerned," he said, I should be failing in my duty if I did not point out the dire need for great improvement in the housing conditions, in the backyards, and in the approaches to the houses in many parts of the city proper—not very many thousand yards from the Town Hall itself, in fact. Such conditions are common to all cities, old and new, but modern health ideals make the abolition of such conditions imperative. The matter is one requiring wisdom, vision, patience, and a spirit of sacrifice. It is, to a considerable extent, a real workers' question, as affecting artisans' dwellings x convenient to the artisans' work. "When I asked questions on the state of neglect, one property owner vigorously disclaimed responsibility, owing to the utter disregard of care and interest on the part of the tenants, and their defiant attitude. Tenants on the other hand exclaim ‘How on earth can we be expected to keep such places decent, clean, and tidy?' That is one aspect of the housing question, and not only so, with  one most intimately affecting the I health of this great city."


"Another matter that caused me surprise and disappointment on my return is the number of houses erected and still being erected in wool, particularly in view of the need for conserving every stick of timber in the country for proper timber purposes. I cannot help asking if the people of New Zealand properly understand or appreciate the full measure of loss and the actual calamity that they are allowing to overtake them by the wrongful use, the waste, and the exportation of any kind of timber from this, their country. There is an unreasoned prejudice in the minds of some against the use of concrete, due partly through lack of knowledge and partly to obstructionist ideas which discourage enterprise and the bringing forward of  samples of modern aesthetic concrete construction. And then again, the timber of the new buildings is very different from that in most of the older kauri built dwellings. I wonder what will be the state of some, at any rate, of the modern Californian and Canadian bungalows upon which so much money has been lavished, in a few years' time. They are very pretty and are  calculated to satisfy a natural craving for the ornate, but with the use of so much inferior timber—even pinus insignis has been freely substituted in framing—what will be the result, say, in twenty years' time. Wooden house blocks will hardly last that time, and the main fabric of these structures will give serious trouble within 25 years." The economic wisdom displayed in roofing material was also questioned by Mr Mitchell, who remarked that charmingly as the red roofs of Auckland fitted in with their surroundings, mere red oxide would not long conceal damaged or defective galvanizing. Slates, tiles of burned clay, or cement and sand would have been far preferable, and the difference in cost could have been well saved out of labour and materials spent on questionable exterior embellishments.


Coming to his experience of the English State Housing scheme, Mr. Mitchell remarked: "It was a splendid conception as a part endeavour to make England's land fit for heroes to live in," but so far it has not done so. The scheme contemplated the spending of some -500,000,000 on housing, and a vast organisation was built up to carry it out - committees, scientists, engineers, architects, experts, inspectors, commissioners, clerical staffs, etc., galore. Much useful and valuable work has been done in investigating old conditions and formulating basic principles upon which to determine future action and avoid the congestion and follies of the past. The money was to be found by the Government and held available for the municipal authorities to spend, subject to a maximum contribution of a penny in the pound on the rates. Suggestive plans and specifications were issued, special forms of construction were investigated supplies of building material and appliances were controlled and held available. Commissioners and their armies of officials were appointed for the various regions into which the country was mapped out, city engineers and surveyors were entrusted with extended functions, architects were sometimes fully employed, and other instances coldly and ungraciously ignored in favour of the bureaucratic method of procedure. These vast proposals naturally led to a correspondingly vast preparation by vested interests in land, building materials, and requirements of every description for cornering purposes. The builders and employers affected formed a close federation for joint action and mutual benefit, and then in the nature of things every form of labour took action to conserve its interests. Strikes, disputes, emulations, and wranglings led to widespread delays, obstruction, and waste. Altruistic cooperation did not manifest itself in action. The Premier of England, well nigh exhausted physically and mentally by war service and international adjustments, could not give any attention to mere domestic concerns, but he saw the state and drift of things, and wisely cried 'Halt!' And that is the position to-day, and rightly so in view of how matters were going."


''Many experiments in housing have been made, good, bad, and indifferent. But on the whole, owing to the lack of altruistic endeavour, or co-operation on the part of some or all of those engaged in the activities, the result must be considered singularly disappointing to the nation. That applies not only to the volume of work done, but to the manner and kind of work actually performed, seeing that the whole proposition and the machinery for its attainment, had behind it the power and influence of the State. The high cost of land, materials, equipment, and labour so curtailed and restricted the architects' work that the buildings actually finished are disappointing in design, and utterly fail to satisfy practical needs, or to touch the fringe of erecting houses at an economic rental. The houses may be built 12 to the acre. Bungalows are sparingly resorted to, groups of two, four, or more, in a terrace, being mostly in vogue, not because they are desired or fully approved, but, because they are imposed by the exigencies of cost and custom. The designs in most cases show two storeys (8ft ceiling to floor). They are in the majority of cases severely plain, rectangular erections with hipped roofs, and rectangular openings for windows. In short they are in most instances suggestive of alms houses. Nor are  the construction and constructive details of these State houses at all up to the standard the nation has a right to expect. In reply to questions the humiliated and discouraged  architects say 'But what can we do in the face of all the rules, regulations, inspectors, trusts, profiteering, labour troubles and general vexations?' 'In short,' added Mr. Mitchell, 'the whole thing has been made impracticable by the greed, selfishness, laziness, stupidity, and general cussedness, and a great nationalised movement for housing betterment becomes a dismal fiasco.'


Blame is certainly not confined to labour, as some would have us believe. But Labour problems are made to loom so big now in the affairs of nations that the immediate reactions upon industrial endeavour are most serious. Before any relief can be given, trusts, cornerings, profiteering in land and all raw materials, must be made impossible by moral conviction, followed by legal enactment. It would appear that wages must drop or a much larger volume of  work performed for present wages before the economic problem can be even approached for solution.

Mr. Mitchell explained that his official duties carried him into close touch with the effects of the various influences of destruction and construction, and he was able to see where New Zealand could gain some useful lessons from  the Mother Land in how not to do things. "My experience convinced me," he said, "that until such time as the nation fits itself by earnest study and endeavour, to carry out scientifically so relatively simple a matter as housing, the Government must ca' canny and individuals get a more on."

Auckland Star,
17 December 1921,
Page 5

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