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Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 5 (October-November 1952)

To Build or Not to Build?

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To Build or Not to Build?

Although the demand for new houses seems to be as great to-day as ever, the cost of building shows little or no sign of reduction. Where costs are so predominant a factor, every move in the game (or is it war?) of building assumes an added importance; the consideration of even minor matters is therefore of practical significance, and it is hoped that this article may render less troublesome the many problems which beset the home builder to-day.

Getting a Section

Don't misunderstand this title. What follows doesn't tell you how to conjure up a building section out of thin air–we leave such stuff to the professional magician.

It does however try to show some pointers toward getting a good section, for there are certain standards of evaluation. Plato was once asked by someone who considered his ideal republic unattainable and hence useless, what purpose such a proposal could have. He got the reply that through knowing the ideal, then other offerings could be adjudged by comparison with it and that which differed least from the ideal was therefore best. This is the intention behind this article.

Probably your first desire will be to live in a particular suburb, even if only because your mother-in-law doesn't live there. Whatever the reason may be let us assume that your attentions are confined to a certain area. What, then, are the things to look for?


1. Locality.–Nearness to shops is an important consideration for the housewife and a point quite often overlooked in the pleasure of finding something of a smp.

2. Freedom from through traffic.–This is a factor of prime importance when young children are gaining mobility without having developed any awareness of the dangers of through traffic. Those fortunate parents who may have built in a blind street know much less of the secret dread of speeding cars than do those who live on main traffic routes. Needless to say, however, convenience demands that main tram, bus, or train routes should be near at hand.

3. Nearness to schools.–When the child becomes of school age the daily journeys to and from school may be a long drag or a short pleasurable walk. If there are pedestrian routes from home to school then both children and parents are satisfied.

4. Nearness to play areas and parks.–Any housewife will tell you of her annoyance at having children under her feet all day. Look for a section then, where a playground or park is reasonably handy.


Now consider your prospective section on the basis of the following points:

1. Size.–The normal section of to-day approximates 32 perches in area–or 1/5 acre. Now for many people such a section is too large, and requires more in the way of attention than they either can or are prepared to afford. If you don't want to spend all your spare time in the garden, buy a section of about the area of 20 to 25 perches.

Again, beware of the narrow section. More often, than not, you find yourself jammed up alongside houses on each side–a situation bad for privacy and in most cases very bad for sun. If you want to spread yourself, spread yourself laterally and choose a 66 ft. wide section rather than 45 ft. (See diagram 1.)

2. Adjoining buildings.–It is generally a good plan to see your section in midwinter. One section I looked at recently received at the most one and a half hours sun daily in mid-winter, from sunrise until first a tree shadow and then a shadow from the adjoining house (a building on higher ground to the north) fell over the only area flat enough for economical building. Result–in winter the frost never left the ground. So try to estimate the effect of shadows from adjoining objects upon the property and remember the lowness of the angle of winter sun and consequent long shadows. (See diagram 2).

3. Slope.–Perhaps the sections left for building in Wellington, rather than sloping are relatively mountainous, their degree of slope being measured more easily from the vertical than the horizontal. Nevertheless when the slope is to the north even excessive steepness is acceptable for the reason of the improved relationship of the land surface to the sun. However–the reverse situation with land having a southerly slope is never really good, even with only a moderate slope. (Diagrams 3 and 4 will illustrate this point.)

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If building materials can be conveyed from the road to the building by gravity rather than by the hard labour of hauling or winding you should see an effect not only upon the readiness of builders to consider doing the job but also in the less exaggerated estimate of the cost of their services to you.


The last point to notice is the orientation of the section in regard to north. You may say such a consideration is immaterial–but compare the two orientations in diagram 5. One shows a section with an east-west orientation with a house placed parallel to the side boundaries. Notice that the south wall receives practically no sun at all. Now if you look at the orientation north-east, south-west the same wall always receives some sun even in winter. If you can afford to buy a really large section then, of course, by swinging the house on the ground the same result may be achieved.

To Sum up

The best section then is:

On a blind road or cul-de-sac.

Near a play area.

With shops and school near at hand.

Well served by public transport.

If sloping, then with a slope to the north and preferably below the road.

With an orientation NE and SW rather than E-W.

And not under the lee of adjoining buildings or plant growth cutting out winter sun.

Getting a House

Having, we hope, found a good building site, the next question to discuss is the thing you propose to place upon it. One of the most exasperating factors you will be confronted with is the cost adjustment that will surely be necessary from the scheme you first desired to the scheme you can afford; only to find in the end, perhaps, that your hoped-for savings have been nearly swallowed up with further price increases.

As the consideration of this question of substantially reducing building costs seems more a question to be referred to the economist and the statesman, let us, as indeed we seemed forced to do, accept the high cost of building and turn our attention to tackling the problem of gaining a reduction in the cost of our houses by following certain procedures.

There seem to me to be certain things one can do and these fall into two categories: (1) Build the house yourself and eliminate the builder's profit and his percentages on materials and sub-contractors' work. If you can't do this, then build with a builder in one or other of the ways described later.

Design and Cost

In this title notice the two words ‘design’ and ‘cost’ and for a moment or two briefly consider the word ‘design’. What is meant by this word?

Design in a thing may be said to imply the possesion of certain qualities. The thing, be it a house, a chair, a window or an electric toaster, shall, if it be well designed, possess (1) a fitness for its purpose; (2) suitability of material; and (3) pleasantness of appearance.

Now in a house, which is, as a French architect has observed, a machine for living in, fitness for its purpose merely means that its arrangement shall ease the living-habits of its occupants.

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As no two families live in quite the same way, then to design a house for a particular family means so to arrange the component parts as to suit the life of that family. The first thing you must decide, then, is the way you intend to live, or to note the idiosyncrasies in your mode of life, or at the least your definite preferences.

Again–materials. For example, I think it is wrong to put plaster over a wooden frame. Firstly a stucco house nearly always cracks because a rigid material has been fixed over a material that is in a constant state of movement varying with temperature and humidity. And a stucco house fails, I find, to convince me of its being built of wood–there always seems to be lurking in the recesses of its false face a hint of a would-be concrete frame. So whatever you do, be honest with your materials.

Lastly–pleasantness of appearance. Here we are on rather vexing ground, for whatever someone puts forward as pleasant some other person will condemn. Perhaps if we said merely freedom from mannerisms we might be nearer the mark. This is a consideration that affects the lover of modern things as much as the lover of old things. It is just as stupid to use the trappings of the past as to embrace the eccentricities of to-day. So whatever you do, don't be cranky.

Building with a Builder

This is, of course, the usual way of getting a house built and still seems for those with limited time or capacity to be the best way; or for those whose preferences for the unusual are not so definitely decided.

There is a definite connection between the words ‘design’ and ‘cost’. In terms of building, the moment you depart from the standard you incur increases in cost; at least such has been my unhappy experience. For instance, the standard type of window is based upon the 4 ft. × 1 ft. 10 in. sash. If you happen to be addicted to large glass areas or pleased by the appearance they give to a house you are forced to step outside the standard window size and up goes your joniery cost immediately. This is unfortunate, for windows, like eyes to a human face, give character to a house. Again, if you are fortunate enough to employ a builder with no aversion to trying unorthodox solutions you can give some rein to your imagination. Generally, though, builders are conservative creatures and from choice or habit they build in a certain way, and because habitual things require little or no thought they seem to be the cheapest way of doing the job even if, in fact, such may not be the case.

So–as we have been concerned with the questions of design and cost in this article, your attention is drawn to certain limiting factors which should be realized.

1. New ideas generally cost money, both because of their strangeness and because some of them may not work as well as we imagine.

2. Keep it Simple.–A house with four corners need not be unattractive–in fact, its simplicity is, if properly handled, its main attraction. And remember–every additional corner means providing more watertight flashing, more mitreing of weatherboards, more time in setting out of foundations, more bending of steel reinforcement, more setting out of roofs, and so on. So don't be deluded by stories of the angular ‘sun-trap’ house. You can't afford to listen, and anyway the main point is correct orientation.

3. Keep to Standards.–If you can afford to try some variation for the sake of the spice of life, do so, but find out your builder's standard way first–it will probably be cheaper.

4. Plan your Space.–Space is what you are paying for, so make use of it. If you can't work it out properly and economically then employ some one who can.

To-day, as every foot of space is costing you so much, no space should be wasted. Halls can be dispensed with or enlarged into usable rooms. Passages can be cut to a minimum. Rooms can be eliminated or telescoped into others, always bearing in mind, of course, that these ideas can be carried to excess. For example, it is just no use labelling certain parts of a large room as ‘living space’, ‘dining space’, ‘study space’, etc., and imagining that in practice such things work out. They do not. If study must be provided for, say, in a home with children of High school age, then a fitment in the youth's bedroom, rather than a corner of the living-room called a study corner, is surely required.

Premium on Privacy

With all this telescoping of space you will find privacy at a premium, so remember the relation of your rooms and the needs of their occupants. Parents in a small house need privacy just as much as children, so try to segregate your functional areas.

5. Plan Your Services.–Planning and plumbing costs go hand-in-hand, so don't put the bathroom in one corner, the laundry in another and the kitchen in a third. Group them.

6. Limit your Built-in Furniture.–If you don't, the price will probably force you to do so. Find out just how much cupboard space you need in your kitchen.

Building with a builder can be varied. You may also try these alternatives:

A. Partial Completion of Your House: Most New Zealanders are handy up to a point with tools, and that point is generally a more competent one than perhaps they imagine. Some serious consideration should therefore be given to a scheme of getting a price from a builder for, say, the following:

Putting in the foundations, erecting the framework and completely finishing the exterior work and putting down the floor. Then the building owner can arrange the electrical installation, the plumbing work, interior joinery work with separate tradesmen, and assumes himself the task of fixing the internal linings and internal finishings after these other tradesmen are out of the building, and, finally, he can do painting and decorating. I know of at least one instance when this system was followed out to the complete satisfaction of the owner–to his financial satisfaction, which was accompanied by a surprised pride in his own tradesmanlike achievement. It is therefore worth your consideration.

If desired, the builder may be engaged in addition to finish, say, the bathroom and one bedroom so as page 115 to permit early occupation of the building and the owner can then eliminate the inevitable time loss through travelling to and from the job.

B. Building only a Nucleus: Some years ago I prepared a scheme for operation by the Rehabilitation Department. The basic idea was the Expandable House and proceeded from the argument that half a loaf is better than no bread. In some cases I believe the idea is still a good one to-day. There are however certain things you should realize about such a scheme. The basic unit, of course must include in the first stage all plumbing work, and therefore your first cost is bound to be of a higher unit rate than would otherwise be.

Unit Rate: Suppose for sake of argument your plumbing cost is of the order of £250 out of the cost of £2000 for the basic accommodation of living room, bedroom, bathroom and combined kitchen-laundry comprising an area of, say, 600 square feet. This would represent a unit rate of £3. 6. 8. per square foot. But had the area been 1000 square feet exactly the same plumbing units etc. would have had to be provided for both schemes and hence the unit rate must be less for the larger house.

Then again, there is to-day the dual problem of the proportionately higher cost for the provision of additional accommodation in the way of alterations plus the difficulty of getting builders to take on such work in times when there is a great demand for new houses. Also, paradoxically enough, that moment when additions to the family demand increased accommodation always seems to come when finances are at their most stringent.

I would say, then, that if the choice has to be between some accommodation for a fixed maximum cost or none at all, then you may have to consider this scheme, building only the nucleus of your house at a higher unit cost and extending it later at a higher unit cost than if you had built it all in the first stage.

What, then, can be done? The first thing after getting the best building section you can seems to be to get a good architect to work out your building programme, so that your design will be efficient, economical and pleasant. Getting the house built will then be up to you in one or other of the ways suggested.