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The evolution of the New Zealand state house: From ‘good bones’ to award-winning design

13 July 2018
first state house

The first state house under the Labour government, built in 1937 at 12 Fife Lane, Wellington. Source:

Close to a century after being built, the classic New Zealand state houses of the 1930s and 40s are hot property. In New Zealand’s buoyant housing market, they’re seen as affordable and attractive options for young first-home buyers and savvy investors alike. Real Estate agents promote “ex-state house” as a selling point in property listings.

Why have state houses retained their appeal? They’re part of the fabric of New Zealand society. Hundreds of thousands of us have lived in one, or next to one. They have a reputation for having “good bones”, meaning they’re seen as being structurally sound and built from quality materials. And they’re seen as tidy, blank canvases, suitable for sprucing up and adding value to.

Fast-forward 80 years, and Housing New Zealand is still building high-quality, state-of-the-art homes that go well beyond what’s required by the Building Code. Homes that win architecture awards and receive the Homestar ratings. Homes that make the most efficient use of Housing New Zealand’s land holdings. But most importantly, warm, safe, comfortable homes that provide for the needs of everyday New Zealanders.

Jennings Jersey development

Award-winning state house development in Jennings St and Jersey Ave, Auckland, built in 2017.

“A lot of work has been done on what the homes are like on the inside,” says Matthew Hulett, the acting general manager of Housing New Zealand’s Asset Development Group.“ We consider everything, from natural light, to ensuring there is double glazing and that they are weather-tight and warm. All the homes are rated highly by the New Zealand Green Building Council.”

There’s no question that the state house has evolved over time. They have been moulded by changing trends, demands, governments (and, in some cases, the fluctuating cost of building materials and labour). Here, we retrace the history of New Zealand’s state houses, from their humble origin to the present day.

The first state houses (1905 - 1940s)

12 Fife Lane, Miramar, several decades after it was built. Source:

12 Fife Lane, Miramar, several decades after it was built. Source:

New Zealand’s first state houses were built under the watch of then prime minister Richard Seddon in 1905. Several hundred workers’ houses were built, but the rents were still too high for many and the scheme never prospered. The Railways Service also built large clusters of railway cottages to meet growing demand for housing after World War I.

The first state house, as we know them today, was built by the Labour government of the time at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar, Wellington, in 1937. This marked the start of the first boom period for state housing in New Zealand.

It was a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house built with plastered brick walls and a concrete tile gable roof. The fact that it’s still standing today, having been maintained and upgraded to a high standard over the years, is a testament to its quality.

The government committed to designing and constructing houses to the highest possible standard budgets allowed and it was decided that no two houses would be designed exactly alike.

A typical state house in the 1930s and 40s. Source:

A typical state house in the 1930s and 40s. Source:

That meant different floor plans, elevation, and materials. State houses built around this time typically used native or exotic timber for framing and flooring; weatherboard, brick veneer, stucco, or fibre cement cladding; and the iconic clay tile roofing.

Open fireplaces were standard for heating and insulation was uncommon. These homes were designed to last for 60 years, but many have lasted much longer - hence their reputation as having “good bones”.

Post-war state housing (1940s - 1970s)

Lauderdale Road

Two 1960s state houses in Birkdale, Auckland, which are to be replaced by seven modern homes.

A housing shortage after World War II led to the government building 10,000 state houses a year, laying out whole suburbs with shops, amenities, and greenspaces.

Initially, the approach to design and construction remained largely unchanged. However, nationwide materials shortages saw hundreds of kitset houses being imported from Austria.

The rising cost of building materials in the 1950s saw the standard of state housing slip for a time. Housing uniformity was seen as a way of cutting costs. Multi-unit buildings were constructed and cheaper materials, such as fibrolite, were used during this period.

Modern state housing (1970s - today)

St Georges Road

A major redevelopment planned for St Georges Rd in Avondale where 10 old state houses are being replaced by 102 apartments across eight buildings.

Housing demand eased in the 1970s which led to a slowdown in the building of state houses. The state houses that were built during this time were generally of a higher quality as subsequent governments sought to correct the mistakes made during previous decades.

It was during the 70s and 80s that state housing was built alongside more costly private developments and closer to workplaces, public transport routes, and amenities. Different designs that incorporated open-plan living were also introduced.

A new era for state housing

Unprecedented demand for both private and state housing in New Zealand over the past five years has seen Housing New Zealand ramp up the innovation, creativity, and quality of its new developments in Auckland and across the country.

Mountain Road

Two-bedroom duplex units planned for a redevelopment in Mangere, Auckland.

Today, the focus is on a diverse housing mix that serves the needs of Housing New Zealand tenants now and into the future, makes the most efficient use of land, and fits seamlessly into established communities.

“We’re not just building houses, we’re building communities, so urban design is a really important part of what we do,” says Matthew. “Everything about the build of the houses is done by design, not left to chance.”

The variety of housing types reflect New Zealand’s changing demographic. Where early state houses were built with the traditional nuclear family in mind, today’s developments cater to large and small families, as well as young couples, individuals, and elderly tenants.

No two developments will look the same. There are standalone houses, multi-storey walk-ups, apartment blocks, and units. They are designed by leading architects and constructed using a range of high-quality, modern materials.

“Working from 12 basic house designs, there are close to 1,000 variations – things like roofs and facades – that can make the houses look different and unique,” says Matthew.

Housing New Zealand is looking to prefabrication technology to meet the urgent demand for housing, particularly in Auckland. Cross-laminated timber, a sustainable material as strong as concrete, was recently used in a redevelopment in Otara. These modular construction methods have been well-proven in the United States, Australia, and Europe and allow for faster build times, greater quality control and sustainability, and lower costs.

Clayton Ave

Prefabricated cross-laminated timber being installed at a redevelopment in Otara in 2017.

Housing New Zealand has also introduced a Warm and Dry standard for its homes that goes beyond what’s required by the Building Code. This includes:

  • Insulation, double glazing, thermal quality curtains, making houses more efficient to heat
  • Carpet where appropriate
  • Fixed heating source in living area
  • Houses and apartments are designed to take advantage of the sun
  • Energy efficient lights
  • Water efficient showers, toilets and taps

These modern state houses have already been recognised with an Auckland Architecture Award by the New Zealand Institute of Architects. They’ve also been awarded the highest home sustainability rating in New Zealand.

“There’s a saying that the design of a building isn’t done until somebody is living in it, because only then can you tell what needs to be changed,” says Matthew. “At every stage of the process, we’ve collected feedback from tenants and peer reviewed our designs with architects and engineers. We’re already reviewing the buildings we’ve just finished to see if we can improve anything - It’s something that’s constantly evolving .”

Like the state houses of the 1930s and 40s, these new developments are designed to house HNZ tenants for the next 50-60 years. With 23,000 new houses planned as part of the Auckland Housing Programme alone, these modern, innovative, sustainable state houses will also form part of the fabric of New Zealand in the years to come.


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