My neighbour is putting on an extension. He’s a dedicated DIY-er and does all the grunt work himself. When he hits a construction conundrum, mates turn up to help out.
He’s been collecting demo windows and doors, bits of 4×2, weather boards, for weeks and now he’s got a reclaimed timber addition to his suburban 2-bed. He’s added a yellow tent fly to one side, a tino rangatiratanga bedspread to the other. He’s installed a solid-fuel fire with a functioning chimney. He’s even made a standard lamp out of a tower of traffic cones to sit in the corner and offer a comforting glow.
I know this because I can see right into his nearly-finished add-on, and that’s because it’s really just a carport. He’s covered it in over a few months, bit by bit, using whatever comes to hand.
Even unfinished, the building site has become a gathering place for friends dropping by. It’s what we’re all after: part paepae, part pavilion. It’s turning into a place where soap-boxes are mounted and rants expounded, stories swapped, laughter shared. Sometime friendly debate heats up into full blown argy bargy, and once a machete fight. Music bangs. Kids hang out on couches. The dog and its puppy (and its puppy’s puppy) mooch in and out through the portière (really a striped shower curtain hung over the break between blanket and fly).
Housing New Zealand, who owns the place, probably have strong opinions on the bespoke addition to their bog standard semi. For the people who live and visit here it’s become an essential community hearth. Humans are hungry for shared spaces where we can just be, neither work nor home but some precious place between. For most of the people on my street, this is it.
Last week though a Hard-hat’n’high-vis arrived in a hatchback and inspected with a clipboard. He made notes and nodded while my neighbour explained his vision, flipping through the blue-prints inside his mind. The news though didn’t seem good and my neighbour began a performative dismantling of his creation while The Clipboard was still onsite.
As the hatchback pulled out of our road the shouting started. Then the throwing of things that smashed across the footpath. Then the screaming and swearing of my neighbour’s missus as she battled back. His frustration boiling over, she was an easy target. It didn’t last long. She threw shade and he stalked off to the dairy for a breather.
The rebuilding began the next morning and now their annex is as it was, actually more than it was because today they added a new ‘room’ by hanging sweeps of bright fabric over an old tramp frame.
We have a housing crisis in Hawke’s Bay, a microcosm of what’s happening elsewhere in Aotearoa. But the lack of stable and safe houses has myriad ramifications past having somewhere to lay your hat. Without a home that you can truly call yours, you don’t have a place to host your wider family and friends, a place where those vital connections can be strengthened. There’s no place you can be guaranteed a hot meal, a hand up, occasionally a hand out. Without a home you have no place to express your creative centre, show who you are.
Ours used to be a culture of doing it ourselves, making it ourselves. We used to throw up a shack before lunch and have it decorated by tea-time. It wasn’t just necessity. It was a valid outlet for our creativity, our ingenuity, our magpie-eyed knack of seeing treasure in detritus.
More and more people are moving more and more often. Some families just move in and they’re off again: new flat, new neighbours, new school. And because they are so tenuously linked to where they are they can’t fall in love with it, and looking after it seems a chore, not a pleasure. When they do take ownership, they are slapped down. Even planting things in gardens that aren’t actually yours can be a no-no, let alone painting a wall or affixing a bookshelf.
We’re a lucky lot in New Zealand with our social housing, although there’s not enough to go around … 40,000 people here are homeless. People are calling motel rooms ‘home’ … garages, cars.
My neighbour’s dedication to turning this house into a home, and more than that, a hub, makes him a poster boy for the human desire to bedazzle our surroundings. We use our creative nous to make our mark on where we live. Without that we just perch and don’t settle.
My neighbour may have extended the metaphor a little too far: A lean-to is one thing, a conservatory with vestibule quite another. But he’s showing our block that taking ownership can be beautiful, it can be stripy, reclaimed, pretty garish, a bit gaudy and very brave but still beautiful.