Houses that Flex, Winds that Roar

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one and find the Adventures of Little Quail. Then join me an Alan for whare and housing woes…

JANE: In answering your question about flat roofs here in the southwest, I found myself going into the sort of details that an author uses when world-building. That got me wondering about what might have influenced the various building styles there in New Zealand.

A Brightly Colored House

A Brightly Colored House

ALAN: The Maori in New Zealand were fortunate in that they had a lot of natural materials to work with. A typical house, or whare (that’s pronounced FORR-EH, by the way)…

JANE: Why? I mean, why didn’t they just spell it “Forreh”? I swear, British words seem to require a code book to pronounce them properly…

ALAN: (putting on his linguistic digression hat):When the British arrived in New Zealand they found a very sophisticated stone age culture already in place. However, the Maori didn’t have a written language and attempts by the invading British to record the sounds of the language were formalised phonetically. It so happens that some Maori tribes pronounce the “wh” sound rather like the aspirated English pronunciation in words such as “where” and “when”. However other tribes pronounce it with a much harder sound, approximating the English “F” . This last is slightly more common, but nevertheless the initial “wh” spelling remains. Similar phonetic arguments apply to the rest of the word.

The Polynesian languages are all quite closely related. Maori sounds very similar to Hawaiian, to give an example slightly closer to your home than to mine. Does that help?

(Alan takes his hat off again).

JANE: Excellent!

ALAN: Meanwhile, back to houses. A whare was built of wood and thatched with reeds bound together with flax. The slope of the roof was quite steep to encourage run off. No trout lakes here either.

JANE: Isn’t flax what linen comes from? Then they had linen ties on their roofs? Interesting…

ALAN: Indeed they did. Flax can be pounded into fibres that are used to weave cloth and to make very strong rope and string. Actually the rope it makes is of such high quality that it was in great demand for rigging the sails in the ships of the Royal Navy.

The fabric produced from it isn’t quite linen because the New Zealand flax is a different plant from its Northern Hemisphere equivalent, but it’s close enough to make a good comparison. However, the cloth itself wasn’t used to make roofs. Just the string and rope were used to bind the reed thatching together.

JANE: Thanks! I must admit, I had a momentary image of bed sheet-covered thatching.   Pray, continue…

ALAN: These days, houses in New Zealand continue to be mostly made of wood – it flexes and bends in earthquakes, so houses built of wood are more likely to survive quakes that would destroy houses built of more rigid, less flexible materials such as brick. Because the houses are made of wood, they obviously need painting, and walking down a typical New Zealand street can be a very colourful experience indeed. A friend of mine has painted his house a rather vivid purple, though he is regarded as more than a little eccentric and I suspect he might have to re-paint it in a more conservative colour if he ever tries to sell it…

JANE: I miss brightly colored houses. During my recent visit to San Francisco, I very much enjoyed the colorful houses. When Jim and I had our house re-stuccoed a few years ago, I pointed out to him that there were some non-brown options. I rather liked a vivid blue. Jim looked quietly horrified.

Still, he got adventurous enough to suggest a warm reddish brown shade called, I believe, “Sedona” after the famous “red rocks” in that area of Arizona. We didn’t think it was all that dramatic, but one visitor insisted the house was now “pink.” It isn’t. It’s still brown, just reddish-brown.

It seems to me that, when looked at the way we have, houses can be seen as mechanisms for keeping out the weather. Design features, especially in the olden days, weren’t a matter of architectural whim, but intended to deal with aspects of the weather.

ALAN: Quite true. New Zealand weather tends very much towards extremes. Huge rainstorms, gale force winds, and very cold winters alternate with fierce sunshine in the summer. Trying to reconcile all of these in one building is really rather tricky. My house is in desperate need of painting at the moment. The relentless sun of summer has dried the paint out and it is flaking off. The steel roof absorbs heat very well and the roof space is always much warmer than rest of the house.

JANE: We have extremes as well and they influence lots of things – including aspects of one’s car. New Mexico gets over three hundred sunny days a year, so owning a car that is painted black or even dark blue or green is not a good idea. Those dark colors soak up heat. Even if you do opt for a darker vehicle exterior, plastic or vinyl seat covers are a very bad idea. Many people cover their steering wheels as well.

ALAN: Three hundred sunny days a year? We’re lucky if we get a tenth of that…

JANE: They’re some compensation for the high winds. At least we get to watch fluffy clouds scudding off against a clear blue sky.

ALAN: Much of New Zealand suffers from a lot of very windy days – and I do mean gale force winds. Gusts of up to 150 kph are common in Wellington (where I live). They are less common elsewhere, but still not unheard of. Just a few days ago, Auckland had 175 kph gales! Naturally, these can cause chaos as trees blow down and fall indiscriminately on power lines, and the power poles themselves often blow over. Thousands of people lose electricity, sometimes for days at a time. There was an interesting video shown recently on the TV news of a house being battered by the winds. Suddenly the entire steel roof just peeled off and blew away!

JANE: Now I understand why you have steel roofs rather than tiles! Tiles would get flung all over the place and asphalt shingles wouldn’t have a chance.

Who took the video?

ALAN: Someone who was in the right place at the right time with a mobile phone, though what they were doing taking movies instead of huddling in a dark corner I really don’t know.

JANE: Wow! What courage – or, uh, idiocy. I’m not sure which… Anyhow, I’d love to go on talking about the weather, but I should get to work. Maybe next time!

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9 Responses to “Houses that Flex, Winds that Roar”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Ahem. (Putting on pedantic botanist hat). New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) is a perennial monocot native to New Zealand, that is close to daylilies and fairly close to aloes and in the same order as asparagus. Flax (Linum usitatissimum) is an annual dicot native from Europe to India and widely planted elsewhere. It isn’t close to much anything, but it’s in the same order as poinsettias, rubber, coca, willows, and violets. And kudos to you if you can figure out what, other than genes and shared ancestry, unites these disparate plant families. Figuring this relationship out produced one of the bigger “who ordered that?” moments in modern botany. Come to think of it, the discovery of the whole Asparagus order was a close runner up in the field of “hunh?” The only structural feature in common in the Asparagus order (which also includes everything from asparagus to agaves to aloes to orchids) is that most of them produce immature flowering stalks that look like an asparagus if you stare at them long enough.

    Just as the old British limeys insisted that koalas were bears, they decided that Phormium produced flax, and the names make about as much sense in both cases. And much as I like linen, I don’t think it’s substantial enough to tie a roof down during a proper Auckland gale.

    (tries to take off pedantic botanist hat and fails miserably)

    • Chad Merkley Says:

      My pedantic botanist hat is a little outdated, and is kind of just patched onto my pedantic ecologist hat. I think I just barely missed getting to learn the APG II system in college. And then, just as soon as I started to get used to it, BAM, APG III.

      But yes, trying to use common names between continents often does not provide useful information. Thank goodness for Linnaeus, and all the nerds and pedants who have followed him.

      Even if you fail in taking off a pedantic hat (of any kind), I find them useful for muffling my face while screaming at someone’s ignorance.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    “ALAN: Three hundred sunny days a year? We’re lucky if we get a tenth of that…”

    Hmmm… Either the climate has gone _way_ downhill, or I got most of a decades’ supply the 2 months I was visiting.

    Mind you, the 4 hours of that in Wellington were rather gloomy as i recall, so maybe it’s a local effect?

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Well perhaps I exaggerate slightly for dramatic effect. But there are times when we do despair of ever seeing the sun again. Even summer can on occasion be gloomy. We’re doing quite well this year though. Currently we are in the depths of winter but nevertheless there have been a lot of quite sunny (albeit *very* cold) days.


      -Alan

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Oh? There’s ice in Fitzroy Bay? If not, you’re not having a winter at all. ::BEG::

  3. Sally Says:

    Re the re-stuccoing of your house, Jane: The colorblind husband of a family I used to know here in Albuquerque had their (SW style) house painted bright turquoise while his wife was out of town as a birthday present for her, that being her favorite color. It did not go over too well, but stayed turquiose for years. It was very easy to pick out on a street of brown houses.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I like it! It’s amazing how quickly one becomes accustomed to houses all in shades of brown. When our neighbor painted her shed turquoise, Jim and I were distinctly startled. But when the new owners of the house re-painted the same shed a tan with contrasting brown trim, we missed the color.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    In his Honorverse novels, David Weber follows the custom of naming “new world” plants and animals for “old world” equivalents.

    When we were doing the Stephanie Harrington novels, this confused me to no end, but he supplied me with tidy notes about what plants actually looked like. It helped!

  5. Paul Says:

    I like that idea of “old world” equivalents. It’s a good way to connect us “now” readers to the future settings.

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