The house I live in was built in 1916. My wife and I plan a party next year to celebrate its centenary. Of all the houses we’ve owned (this is number seven), it’s the one in which I've felt most at home.
It was built in what architectural historians call the transitional villa style, an intermediate stage between the traditional villa of the late 19th century and the Californian bungalow that became fashionable after World War I.It’s by no means grand, but the rooms are generously proportioned. It incorporates some lovely woodwork and leadlight glass.
Traditional materials were used (native timber weatherboard, matai flooring, corrugated iron roof), but the house has some unusual features, including charming round leadlight windows that my architectural draughtsman brother told me are known as aurioles.
And boy, was it strongly built. When a builder cut a hole between two rooms to put in French doors several years ago, he marvelled at how sturdy the interior walls were.
Two powerful earthquakes in 1942 – 7.2 and 6.8 respectively on the Richter scale – caused mayhem in Masterton, where we live, but the only damage suffered by our house was the loss of a brick chimney (one of thousands that toppled in the town).
Now here’s my point. You can be sure that whoever built our house had no formal training or qualifications. No one in the building trade did then. I’m not even sure that councils employed building inspectors.
But houses of that era were built to last. My own grandfather was a builder in Palmerston North whose proudest creation, a magnificent 1904 villa called Kaingahou, has a category II rating from Heritage New Zealand and is regarded as a showpiece.
Contrast this with the situation I heard described on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon programme last week. Complaints about substandard building work have risen by 30 per cent this year. In Auckland, one-third of building inspections result in a “fail”.
Some of the failings were detailed on the programme. They included fundamental stuff like concrete blocks not lining up, gaps and cracks in foundations and walls out of true. Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan described some of the photos she was shown as “shockers”.
Auckland Council’s manager of building control partly attributed the problem to the city’s building boom, which he says has created jobs for a lot of inexperienced people.
Same old, same old. The building industry has always been prone to boom-and-bust cycles.
I couldn’t help thinking that if standards are so poor now, how bad might they get when the promised increase in housing construction starts in Auckland?
But what I most wanted to know was how all this could happen just three and a half years after the government, amid much fanfare, launched the Licensed Building Practitioner (LBP) scheme.
It was introduced in response to the disastrous leaky homes crisis and was supposed to ensure, if I recall correctly, that shoddy building work would be a thing of the past.
The scheme imposed a cumbersome new bureaucracy on the building trade and required tradesmen to jump through all manner of hoops in order to demonstrate competence. A builder friend of mine was almost apoplectic at what he called suffocating control by meddling bureaucrats, which he argued would raise building costs, stifle innovation and create barriers to employment.
The supreme irony, to me, was that the scheme appeared to enhance the power of the very same bureaucracy that had presided over the leaky homes epidemic in the first place.
And what has been the result? More shoddy building work. Ryan got an admission out of the Auckland Council building control manager (who was commendably frank) that we were at risk of another leaky buildings catastrophe.
I waited for her to ask him the obvious question: how could this happen so soon after the introduction of an elaborate scheme expressly created to prevent it? She never did.
I was left to conclude that when you combine political pressure to “do something” about a problem (such as leaky homes) with a naïve faith in the power of regulations to change people’s behaviour, the results are rarely the ones desired.
We have recently seen another example of this. Parental smacking was banned in 2007, supposedly to reduce New Zealand’s shocking incidence of violence against children.
It has done nothing of the sort, just as critics of the anti-smacking law predicted. In fact reported child abuse rates increased by 83 per cent between 2008 and 2013.
All that has happened is that a lot of good parents have been subjected unnecessarily to the stigma and unpleasantness of police investigations for harmless acts of parental discipline.
Similarly, I confidently predict that this year’s reduction in the drink-driving limit will have minimal impact on the road toll. Responsible people have cut back their alcohol intake, even if their consumption was moderate to start with, but reckless drunks will continue to behave as they always have.
It seems there are some lessons we just never learn.
Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. This article was first published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.