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Old houses are presently receiving bad rap. The proposed WCC spatial plan removes protection of around 70- 80% of the old houses in the inner-city suburbs of Wellington. Some say that they are symbols of ‘colonialism’ and have no place in our post-colonial world. The statement is simplistic. Many earlier owners and occupants were pawns in the colonial system escaping from poverty and servitude in their homelands.

Precious timber

The old houses may remind Wellingtonians of sometimes shameful acts of the past but this is not a bad thing. The deforestation of Aotearoa saw trees felled to clear land but also to build houses. The timber was exploitatively exported and also used locally. Wellington’s 130 year old cottages and villas typically have centuries old heart matai flooring and heart rimu weatherboards. It is said to be ‘as hard as steel’. Windows and doors are crafted in totara, rimu and kauri. If the wood is kept dry, it will last another hundred years or longer. Unlike Europe, Aotearoa has no termites or woodworm, only borer and they can be controlled. Aotearoa’s low-land native forests have largely gone. Let us not destroy the wooden houses too. This would be a travesty.

Resilient and sustainability

0ld wooden houses are resilient. Light and flexible timber frames allowed many houses to survive the Napier and Christchurch earthquakes. Demolition of this built resource and re-building in modern manufactured materials with high embodied energy is not a ‘green’ solution. It is wasteful of our planet’s resources. Timber framed houses can be easily adapted to create space for more occupants. A Victoria University study found clever adaptions using attic spaces, basements, additions and outbuildings. Retrofitting for better thermal insulation and draft-proofing under floors, in walls and ceilings is now standard practice. Roof lights can be effectively used to increase natural lighting.

Design history

Our timber villas are steeped in history. The proportion of rooms, windows and doors are classical, originating from ancient Greece. The design detail of mouldings and decoration is based on 19thC European pattern books. This old design wisdom continues to give aesthetic pleasure and charm. Some home-owners choose to lovingly restore the historical ambiance. Others renovate and embellish their homes in their own cultural traditions creating the rich tapestry of who we are as Wellingtonians. The resulting streetscapes of Newtown are cherished by both locals and visitors alike. New Zealanders travel overseas to bathe in the charm of the historical neighbourhoods in Italy or Greece. Walking the streets, steps and pathways of Wellington’s historical inner suburbs is an equal joy.

Living with our past

Living in an old house allows a gleaning of the experience of our ancestors. This is an intangible gift of a sense of identity and belonging. Smaller houses speak of a time when life was materially simple and sustainable. Ones clothes filled a single wardrobe. Kitchens were simply a kauri sink-bench, a stove, a safe to keep milk and vegetables cool, a dresser for crockery and cutlery and a central table. The table doubled as a worksurface and the family gathering place. This simplicity is close to the minimalism that is aspired to today. This heritage embodies values of simplicity and should be treasured for passing on to next generations.

Into the future

It is a public disgrace that young people have suffered health effects from renting damp, drafty, un-insulated, dilapidated houses in Wellington in recent years. Belated 2021 regulations should force their upgrade, sale or replacement. On balance, most older houses contribute positively to inner city neighbourhoods (as highlighted in the Boffa Miskell report). Future generations deserve to enjoy this inheritance, but caring for older houses can be complex, expensive and/or time-consuming. Ideally, we need a specialist design and building sector which researches and shares knowledge of traditional building crafts as well as compliance with current building codes. Historic Places Wellington is forming a Home Restorers Group to support on-going care and maintenance of timber houses.

The Report of the Resource Management Review Panel released in June 2020 supports conservation in advising “Historic heritage is valued by the public. It makes an important contribution to quality urban environments, our sense of place and nationhood, and wellbeing. Historic heritage values, once destroyed, cannot be replaced. They are a non-renewable resource.” The regeneration of most of Wellington’s old wooden houses is an investment in our cultural heritage and rich and diverse living environments.

Christina Mackay is an Architect and Adjunct Research Fellow at Wellington School of Architecture.

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