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War Economy

Special Measures in 1942–43

Special Measures in 1942–43

The building and construction industry faced a seemingly impossible task in 1942, with the rush of defence works to meet the threat of Japanese invasion, to which was soon added the demand for camp and hospital buildings for United States forces. Defence construction requirements increased threefold between 1941–42 and 1942–43.

The Commissioner of Defence Construction had the unenviable task of fixing priorities between construction work for the New Zealand armed forces and for the American authorities, and restraining even the most urgent private work. For a time, virtually all private building activity was suspended.

Even with the restraint on private building, construction resources were stretched to the utmost to cope with defence needs. Standardisation and prefabrication were introduced as far as possible, longer hours were worked, and there was rigid control over the use of scarce building materials.

The system of private tendering, previously in use for government work, proved too cumbersome at a time when speed was the major consideration. It was in any case unsuitable in an industry whose resources were saturated by the demand for its services. Tendering was suspended and the work was allocated to master builders, first by the Government Architect and later through district Building Committees.

Unless there could be very detailed inspections, allocation of work without tendering left the gate wide open for inefficiency. In any case, it created an atmosphere of distrust about the content and pricing of work.

After some uneasy experimenting with ‘cost-plus’ contracts, the ‘Standard Master Schedule’ system was introduced. Its purpose was to subdivide defence construction jobs into more or less standardised component operations, and to fix standard rates for each component.1 Payment, when work was completed, was to be assessed according to the master schedule.

The system became widely used, and offered distinct advantages in coping with the exceptional pressure of demand on the industry's resources. For its effective operation it required the schedule, analysing the job into components, to be drawn up in advance, so that all parties concerned could have a clear-cut statement of the work involved. Unfortunately, construction needs gathered so much momentum, and particular jobs were so urgent, that there was not

1 The system is described more fully in Chapter 13.

page 241 always sufficient time and staff available to complete realistic master schedules in advance. Consequently, there were frequent misunderstandings about job content, leading to inefficiency, waste of scarce materials and higher costs.

Inevitably, all this sweeping change gave rise to considerable criticism. There were certainly abuses, which often remained unchecked because of staff shortages in the administering department. However, under the threat of invasion, and with the influx of United States forces to be accommodated, speedy construction of defence works had to be the first consideration. In this respect there was little room for criticism.

We have noted the completion in six weeks of camps in the Paekakariki area for over 20,000 United States Marines. Another example of ‘hurry-up’ methods was the erection of the Cornwall Park Hospital near Auckland for use by the United States Army. Comprising 122 buildings with a floor area of eight acres, it could take 1500 patients, which was more than the capacity of the Auckland Public Hospital. Preparation of the site was commenced in October 1942. Sixteen weeks later the buildings were up and patients were being admitted.

Examples of this sort can be multiplied, but the quantity of defence construction work crammed into 1942–43 and 1943–44 gives ample evidence of effectiveness in getting work completed.

Meanwhile scarce materials had been conserved by placing restrictions on their use for non-essential work. A series of Building Construction Control Notices in December 1941 and the early months of 1942 had tightened up the restrictions on the use of structural steel, limited the use of corrugated iron to repairs to existing roofs and manufacture of supply tanks, except with the consent of the Building Controller, and limited the use of cement to defence work, freezing works, cool stores or hospitals, except with the consent of a District Engineer of the Public Works Department.

For some time these controls had to be very rigidly applied; the following report of a statement by the Commissioner of Defence Construction, in April 1942, is revealing:1

‘Cement for building may be obtained only by application to the Public Works Engineer, and applications will be granted only if the job is considered vitally important in the national interest or if cement is required to make a building in course of construction structurally safe.

1 Dominion, 9 April 1942.

page 242

‘“A number of large contracts using cement have been suspended,” said Mr Fletcher, “and from the indications of the requirements of the defence programme will probably be shut down for about four months.”’

With labour also being increasingly diverted to essential work, private building fell right away. The value of all urban building permits, which had been £11·1 million in 1940–41 and £9·0 million in 1941–42, dropped to £2·7 million in 1942–43.