The plentiful supply of land in New Zealand and a British-inherited cultural preference for individual houses on their own allotments has meant the majority of houses built in New Zealand have been single-detached dwellings. Most 19th-century towns were laid out on a grid plan, where land was divided into rectangular sections. The house was sited towards the front of the fenced section, leaving space behind for a yard, garden and family play. The houses of the rich were bigger and more opulent. They featured servants’ quarters and were usually on larger sections.
As towns became cities, pressure on residential land increased because, before public transport, all but the rich had to walk to workplaces. Land was subdivided into ever-smaller sections, resulting in houses that were close together and lacked natural light. The rise of cheap public transport, and, later, cars, in the early 20th century resolved this problem by providing ready access to new supplies of land at city edges. The ideal New Zealand dwelling became a two- or three-bedroom, single-detached house on a quarter-acre (0.1-hectare) suburban section.
Increasing demand for suburban land in large cities and a rising preference for smaller, less maintenance-intensive sections meant the quarter-acre-section ideal faded in the late 20th century. This change did not diminish demand for single-detached houses and in the 2010s they were by far the most popular housing type.
Two or one?
The 1930s state-housing programme supported the New Zealand ideal of suburban single-detached housing, and the first rental dwellings were all of this type. But as the cost of the programme grew the state began building cheaper, one-storey semi-detached houses, disguised to look like detached dwellings, often by using an asymmetrical elevation. Few people were fooled.
Medium-density housing was at first spurned by New Zealanders. In part it symbolised the congestion and, in some cases, the squalor of British housing. However, some semi-detached (‘semis’) and terrace housing was built in the main cities from the 1880s as land supplies tightened. Semis are two-dwelling units, where the units share a common (or party) wall but each have their own section. Most of the first semis were symmetrically designed and two-storey to maximise space. During the 1930s semis returned in state-housing schemes. Since the later 20th century developers have often erected semis to make greater use of land, calling them town houses to avoid past negative connotations.
Terrace housing, comprising three or more dwelling units in a row block, was virtually unknown in early New Zealand. Colonial Dunedin had some terrace housing, mostly two-storey and constructed of brick or masonry. During the 1950s and 1960s, mainly wooden terrace housing was built under state-housing schemes to reduce housing provision costs. Since the late 20th century, terrace housing has featured heavily in urban consolidation projects (aimed at raising housing densities), particularly in Auckland.
A town house is often represented as a distinct housing type. But it can refer to a number of types of dwelling: single-detached, semi-detached and even terrace housing. The common feature appears to be a small section. Meanwhile, a flat can describe a dwelling unit in a block of flats or a subdivided house, but also a house-share living arrangement, where occupants refer to each other as flatmates.
Flats and apartments
Blocks of flats or apartments were associated with Old-World ills so none were built in colonial cities. This changed in the 1910s, when entrepreneurs began constructing flats in inner-city Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch for those who viewed flats as modern and urbane.
During the 1940s and 1950s the government built several blocks of state rental flats in Auckland and Wellington before returning to low-density, suburban housing provision.
The revival of inner-city living in the early 1990s saw a new spate of apartment building (the term ‘flat’ was by then considered low-end), mainly for students and professionals, who were attracted to urban life and culture. Apartment blocks also became a feature of resort towns like Queenstown.
Farmhouses and homesteads
Farmhouses and homesteads are single-detached dwellings, but are distinguished from their urban counterparts by their rural situation. Most are sited within a fenced and landscaped compound – similar to a section – that might or might not include other farm buildings. On large farms a farmhouse is called a homestead, and these are often grand in appearance and scale. In colonial society a homestead was defined as such if it was removed from the working men’s quarters and other farm buildings; otherwise it was called the ‘Big House’.
Baches, cribs and beach houses
These are single-detached holiday homes, usually situated beside coasts, rivers or lakes. In the past they were unpretentious, hut-like structures. As waterfront land prices escalated in the late 20th century they became larger, more brazen and less bach-like.