New Zealanders’ rights are under threat. Stricter building legislation is making it more and more difficult for Kiwis to build their own homes. Why should a professional, largely urban population give two hoots? Architectural renegade Tony Watkins tells Francesca Price that it’s not just our national identity at stake but our financial security as well.
All photographs by Rebecca Swan
The Ultimate DIY Guy
Every country has its unwritten bill of rights, those national quirks that are integral to its way of life. In the run-up to the US election you’d hear interviews with rural Americans upset about increasingly restrictive gun laws. “Our country was made by the gun.” they would try to explain. “My father carried a gun and his father before him carried a gun.”
Swap continents, and New Zealand has a similar erosion of national identity going on – although the issue is a little more sympathetic. New Zealanders, known around the world for our ingenuity and practical know-how, are being turned into a bunch of lazy, lily-livered lounge lizards. A society that built itself from scratch just seven generations ago has lost its DIY mojo.
How has this happened? Put that question to 70-year-old architect and former Auckland University lecturer Tony Watkins, and you may find yourself still sitting at a lunch table with him as the light fades.
Tony is every owner-builder’s hero. For years he has battled for the Kiwi right to weild a hammer, taking on select committees, building inspectors and neighbours. He believes that anyone can build their own home and. what’s more, they should.
“Our homes are terrible when we don’t build them ourselves. You have to know the basics, but going back in time we did. In just a few generations we’ve lost that knowledge and handed over the power to the building industry. Now we let them put up buildings and don’t worry whether they face the wrong way or are made with the wrong materials, because we think we can fix it with technology.”
For Tony the problem is in the way we view our houses. “We see them as material objects. We assume that people are consumers and therefore their house is just another consumer object.” And as with many consumer objects, size is important. We want houses that are bigger and better. Tony calls it “architectural obesity”.
“We have a monetary system that allows people to borrow money to build bigger, more expensive houses that screw up the environment, exploit the land and water table. In my grandparents’ day we had half the space and twice he children.”
To Tony, a house isn’t an object, it’s a journey. He believes the process of building a house is just as important as the shelter you end up with. “When you build it yourself, ten to 20 percent of that time is spent building and the rest of the time is spent discovering yourself, the place and the community.” It is also, he points out, a damn sight cheaper, and it doesn’t leave us shackled to huge mortgages that we have to work around the clock to pay.
Tony is fond of saying that his own house, tucked into the million-dollar cliffs of Auckland’s Karaka Bay, didn’t cost him a thing. He built it over many years, while living in the boat shed at the front of the property and working as a lecturer. His method was to pay himself the rent he would have paid elsewhere, to buy the materials he needed.
Most of the wood, tiles and furniture in his house came from demolition sites or fell off the back of a truck – literally. The 2.5-metre-long table we’re siting at was the result of a mate paying a truck driver $5 to unload it in the middle of town, then ringing Tony to come and rescue him.
Almost everything in Tony’s life comes with a story. His intellectual journey to a more sustainable method of architecture came via a physical journey on a bike from London to Singapore.
As a young graduate he’d arrived in London to work on such notable buildings as the Hayward Gallery and Liverpool Cathedral. “Architecture with a capital A.” as he puts it. It was on his way to Singapore, through Europe, that he noticed a different sort of architecture – one that changed his life.
What struck Tony were the squares, the piazzas, the verandahs and the cafes – the places where people congregated and lived, not the dead cathedrals where only tourists went. It is a style that has come to be known as ‘vernacular architecture’. It uses local resources to construct buildings that work for local people – in contrast to building south-facing Victorian villas in Dunedin, or importing plaster and stone to create a Tuscan farmhouse in the Waikato.
Tony spent 30 years passing his knowledge and enthusiasm on to hundreds of students who passed through Auckland University’s School of Architecture. Many of them accompanied him on missions to rebuild derelict palaces in Rarotonga or attend the Habitat for Humanity Conference in Istanbul.
He was once challenged to build a house in Aotea Square in 24 hours and did so, using a group of 30 planning students who’d never picked up a hammer before. “By the end of one day of building we had furniture inside, a letter box outside and cabbages in the garden.” Why did he do it? “To show that you can of course!”
To help his crusade to get people back to building, Tony set up the Minimal Building Institute through the Continuing Education Centre. It was a series of weekend workshops, held under a huge canopy on the beach in front of his house. The intention was that anyone could walk away from the course knowing enough basics to build their own house. However it ended up being 90 percent about dealing with bureaucrats, neighbours and hangers-on. “That’s the really difficult part.” warns Tony.
“I’ve come to realise that building a house isn’t a technical question, it’s a psychological one. It’s about how you deal with people, how you deal with the visitors who criticise, how you deal with yourself when you’re cold and wet.”
Tony tells the story of a woman who left one of his courses still unable to hammer a nail, yet rang him a few years later to invite him to her house-warming. He was stunned that she’d managed to build her own house. What she had done was use her real talent – cooking – to provide an endless supply of meals and baking for anyone who crossed her path and was able to weild a hammer … including the local building inspectors.
Not many owner-builders have such positive experiences with building inspectors however. For many people building inspectors have become the enemy, concerned with covering their own backs rather than helping buildings get it right.
A recent amendment to the new Building Act states that owner-builders can build their own houses, provided that they sign a declaration to say they did the work themselves. Tony points out that owner-builders’ homes are far more likely to be sound because they and their children have to live in them, whereas property developers just get their money and run. “Where’s the declaration to say that this house was built by a shonky building firm that went bust, or a company that previously built 54 leaky homes?”
Tony has known many enthusiasts to simply give up because the legislation made it too difficult. Coming from a long line of men who built their own homes, Tony sees the tightening of legislation over the last ten years as a national shame.
We’ve forgotten we’re New Zealanders.” he says passionately. “We no longer build baches, we no longer have kids rushing around on building sites, everything is about immobilising us as people. People have been disempowered, while the building industry has got rich. That’s why we’ve got a credit crisis on our hands. The world has fallen to bits because of housing.”
As an old-fashioned socialist, Tony is delighted of course. Everything he’s been saying for the past 45 years has come true: capitalism has fallen on its arse. I hear on the radio the morning of our interview that Das Capital Karl Marx’s seminal treatise, has sold more copies in the last month than it has for years. I tell Tony and his eyes twinkle with glee. He hopes this crisis will herald a time of change, when people stop looking to consumerism to make them happy and start looking to their communities again.
“A New Zealander used to be a person who walked into a room and said, ‘Bugger it, I’m not going to be pushed around by some flunky of a guy I have no respect for. I will prove to that bastard that I can build a house.’ And he’d pull a few mates and make it happen.” That’s not socialism, of course. That’s just good old Kiwi bloody-mindedness.
Tony’s basic belief that we should all live outside is reflected in his open-plan home, which has sliding, Japanese-style doors. These are invariably flung open to the elements, which allows the house to “dissolve away”, says Tony. “It’s quite a fundamentally different way from the current green thinking, which uses huge amounts of insulation and technical stuff so you can sit huddled up inside.”
The sliding doors and post-and-beam structure have allowed Tony to change the layout of the house as it suited. “There are no nails, so you can alter the house without having to spend money to do so. The beauty of an owner-builder house is that it’s always dynamic, always changing.”
Tony’s house is spread over three separate buildings, not unlike a marae. The kitchen and living area is dotted with art painted by his artist partner. The office building is jammed with piles of papers, magazines and books, amid which a ladder leads to a mezzanine bedroom. The last is the bathhouse which is open on one side. “If you don’t want your shoes to go mouldy, then put your shower in a separate building.” says Tony. Most of the wood in the house is recycled native timber. The floors are polished with oil and constantly repolished by Tony’s bare feet. “It’s good for your body and good for the floor.” he says. Tony reckons we could all use native timber to build houses if we employed some long-term planning. “We could be planting up all the unused land in Glen Innes with totara, and in 30 years we’d have the timber for the next generation of houses.” It is, he says, about turning our cities into production units.
The last building on the property is now empty. This was Piglet’s house. Piglet was Tony’s pet pig of 15 years, who passed away recently. Piglet would hang out on the beach at Karaka Bay, catching fish and playing with the local children. Tony says she was one of his greatest teachers.
Copyright article by Francesca Price.
All photographs by Rebecca Swan.
First published in Good magazine Issue Four 2008
Tony is fond of saying that his own house, tucked into the million-dollar cliffs of Auckland’s Karaka Bay, didn’t cost him a thing. He built it over many years, while living in the boat shed at the front of the property and working as a lecturer.
"We’ve forgotten we’re New Zealanders.” he says passionately. “We no longer build baches, we no longer have kids rushing around on building sites, everything is about immobilising us as people. People have been disempowered, while the building industry has got rich. That’s why we’ve got a credit crisis on our hands. The world has fallen to bits because of housing.”