Most of the first European settlers in New Zealand were sealers, whalers and traders, who usually lived in or near Māori settlements. Their houses were either traditional whare or small, gabled cottages. These were built with raupō (reeds) and flax over a wooden frame, or had wattled hurdle walls (supplejack covered in clay) and a thatched roof. A large chimney was placed on one end or side of the house; small windows with wooden shutters were punched in the walls. The multi-purpose nature of these houses, where occupants slept, ate and socialised, distinguished them from Māori whare, which had prescribed functions according to type.
New Zealand’s first prefabricated house was a gift from New South Wales Governor Philip Gidley King to Te Pahi following the Ngāpuhi chief’s visit to Sydney. It was erected on an island in the Bay of Islands in 1806. The house was later destroyed by whalers in retribution for the 1809 Māori attack on the ship Boyd.
Missionaries led the way in building European-style dwellings, in part to showcase European civilisation to Māori. These included the Kerikeri mission house, New Zealand’s oldest surviving dwelling in the 2000s. Erected in 1821–22 by missionary carpenters and Māori sawyers, the symmetrical timber building was of a fashionable Georgian design with a hipped, shingled roof and weatherboard cladding.
Other early houses were prefabricated wooden structures that were shipped from Australia or Britain and assembled on-site. Among these was the Treaty House at Waitangi. Made of Australian hardwoods and designed in the Georgian style by the New South Wales colonial architect, it was erected on an elevated position for the British Resident, James Busby, in 1833–34. The largest prefabricated dwelling was Government House in Auckland. The single-storey structure comprised a suite of formal rooms and government offices as well as the governor’s living quarters. Erected in the government precinct above Auckland in late 1840, the building was consumed by fire in 1848.
In the 1840s the first immigrants often had to live under canvas or in makeshift shelters while sites for towns were decided and houses built or prefabricated ones assembled. In Wellington and other settlements, immigrants often built temporary houses or engaged Māori to build raupō and timber cottages, at times using imported windows and doors. These houses were cheap, warm and easy to construct. A distinctive temporary dwelling in Canterbury was the V hut, a gabled (upside-down V) structure with a door and windows at one end and a thatched roof.
A cosy home
After weeks of living in a tent in Auckland’s Official Bay, New Zealand’s first surveyor general, Felton Mathew, employed Māori to build a two-roomed raupō house for him and his wife, Sarah. Sarah thought it was a better ‘habitation than a tent, especially in wet or windy weather.’ The Mathews bought doors and windows from a carpenter. For glass they used oiled calico, ‘which kept out the rain and gave us light enough within, tho’ of course no view.’1
A major problem with raupō and thatched houses was their flammability. Such was the perceived risk to townscapes and life that in 1842 the colonial government passed the Raupo Houses Ordinance – New Zealand’s first building regulation. It levied a £20 annual rating on any building constructed of raupō, nīkau and other grasses, or a £100 fine for new buildings in such materials. It was first applied to Auckland, but following a series of disastrous fires in Wellington, it and other towns followed suit. Further building controls determining such things as the dimensions of building timber followed.