A handy reputation

Dr Mike Mackay, of Lincoln University, says DIY is now less about building and more about...
Dr Mike Mackay, of Lincoln University, says DIY is now less about building and more about aesthetics and style. Supplied photo.
Mitre 10 general manager (marketing) Dave Elliott says 
Mitre 10 general manager (marketing) Dave Elliott says the company launched its Easy As videos after its research showed "some gaps in people's capabilities". Supplied photo.

Traditionally, New Zealanders have done their own home improvements rather than spend money on tradesmen. But are we still a nation of do-it-yourselfers? Kim Dungey looks at the changing face of DIY. 

Shocked. That's the only way to describe the council building inspector's reaction when he visited the house in Wakari. 

The home owner had called the Dunedin City Council to say he had been doing a bit of work and thought he had a problem, building services manager Neil McLeod recalls. He didn't have a building consent and in an attempt to make the house open-plan, had removed almost every internal wall.

''Quite frankly, we weren't prepared to go in the place. It had a heavy tile roof on it and we weren't sure how it had remained up. We told him to get himself an engineer.''

''The engineer wouldn't go in either so he ended up hiring a scaffolding company to scaffold the inside of his house to keep it up while he rebuilt it. It took him years of work and cost him a lot of money ... and to this day, we still don't know why he did it.''

Kiwis have long prided themselves on their do-it-yourself home improvement skills. A home magazine once dubbed New Zealand the ''renovation nation'' and a Mitre 10 advertisement now back on our TV screens popularised the phrase, ''DIY, it's in our DNA''.

But are such slogans still accurate? Mr McLeod and his staff say they have seen home handymen do ''beautiful'' work but also ''some really dumb things'': Butt pieces of timber together with a nail plate on each side when joists or bearers are short rather than use a continuous length. Remove piles and either not replace them or think a piece of timber or railway iron will provide enough support.

''If do-it-yourselfers have two problems, it would be that they overestimate their own knowledge and ability and that they always underestimate the budget ... so they get partway through [a job] and start having to save money by using cheaper materials, eliminating materials and taking shortcuts.''

Another problem is people departing from approved drawings. One man trying to save money on his extension used secondhand timber instead of new and changed the size of the rafters, spans and lintels, senior building inspector Ricky Berland says, adding that such variations have to be submitted to the council for proper assessment.

Other blunders staff have seen include:

- The ''fix it'' man who laid drain coil on a property, running it uphill in one place and leaving it fully exposed above the ground in another. Surprisingly, the homeowner paid the $3500 bill.

- People who have excavated large parts of their sections for new buildings, only to have the ground behind fall over. One recent cut was 12m (the equivalent of four storeys high), Mr McLeod says.

''We stopped that job for health and safety reasons. Fortunately it didn't give way but I've seen 2m or 3m ones come down more than once.''

- The man who connected a kitchen sink waste pipe to the vent horn of a toilet, then wanted council staff to explain why it didn't comply.

''Nothing much stuns us any more,'' inspections team leader Joe Fitzsimmons says.

''But that one did.''

Others have suggested DIY is becoming a dying art.

In 2009, John Hartmann, then chief executive of Mitre 10, was reported as saying that baby-boomers had less desire for DIY and were likely to be the do-it-for-me generation, while Generation X, the technology generation, seemed to have fewer physical handyman skills.

In 2011, the AA's home emergency response service in the UK blamed a new generation of ''techno-sexual'' men for a demise in home maintenance skills, saying many preferred to nurture their technological prowess rather than learn to fix a dripping tap.

The men it surveyed said being knowledgeable about technology was the most important quality for them to feel masculine, whereas DIY skills were fourth behind being successful in their chosen career and being a competent driver.

Predicting that home maintenance skills could be on the road to extinction by 2040, the AA said only 32% of men under 25 were able to fix the last practical dilemma they had at home, compared with 83% of over-55s. In the 1970s, three-quarters of men learnt DIY skills from their fathers but by 2011, it was just 44%.

And in an Irish poll, younger respondents who could not do DIY said a major barrier to them gaining the skills was having no-one to teach them but also admitted laziness and lack of interest were to blame.

Closer to home, Otago Polytechnic carpentry programme manager Graham Burgess says years ago most students arriving at the institution would have had some experience ''building a tree hut or whatever'' and could use a reasonable range of hand tools. Today, 60% to 70% have never used that gear at all.

Some watching all this point the finger at cheap disposable goods that make maintenance and repairs unnecessary. Others say it represents a broader shift towards making money with your specific skills and hiring experts for everything else, especially since licensed building practitioners have been required for ''restricted building work'' (work critical to the structure of your home or to its weathertightness).

Like Mr Burgess, Hire A Hubby operations manager Darren Hutchinson thinks the main reason is longer working hours that leave people with less time for DIY.

''A lot of people work six days a week now, so they value their time on a Sunday. And there's probably a bit more money with two people working, so they tend to pay somebody to free their own time up.''

Mr McLeod says building is now physically less onerous (thanks to a raft of new tools) but technically more difficult, making DIYers a bit like car owners trying to fix their modern, computer-equipped vehicles.

The rules governing building have made it harder for them to meet the New Zealand Building Code, and change so quickly even his own staff struggle to stay current.

However, he believes Dunedin has more homeowner exemptions than other parts of the country and this may be because of our ''Scottish heritage''.

Signing a statutory declaration before a JP allows homeowners to do restricted building work on their own houses without the need to use licensed building practitioners and, in theory at least, save money. A total of 87 building consents with exemptions were being processed at the time of writing.

Dr Mike Mackay, a lecturer in urban and rural sociology at Lincoln University, did a thesis on DIY in 2012 and does not think it is disappearing at all among New Zealand's first home owners. However, he does believe it is changing ''from a bit of carpentry and so forth to being more about aesthetics and style''.

''You can see that just by walking the [aisles] of a DIY superstore. The paint sections have become much bigger than they used to be.''

This seems to be backed up by his survey of more than 500 Christchurch homeowners, which showed the most commonly completed DIY projects were gardening activities, interior decorating (especially painting) and minor repairs.

New Zealand's DIY tradition began in the necessary build-it-yourself practices of colonial times and periods of material and labour shortages, Dr Mackay says. But it was in the 1950s and '60s that it became the ''popular and highly commodified'' pursuit it is today.

Now associated more with discretionary weekend projects than building a house from scratch, DIY has spawned reality television shows, manuals and magazines, how-to websites and hardware megastores that sell everything from rugs to routers.

''On any given weekend, a quick visit to these enormous `new landscapes of consumption' ... many of which include cafes, playgrounds, garden centres, product showrooms, hire departments and DIY classrooms, will show that the Kiwi tradition of `doing up' the house or, more precisely, consuming DIY products is very popular today.''

While many New Zealanders have lost the elementary skills required for building a house or a lean-to, new tools are making some jobs easier and more affordable prices have brought them within reach of more people.

''I did an analysis of what a domestic power drill would have cost in the 1950s ... and it was about $900 in today's money. So to be able to go in now and get a $30 drill is quite a big change.''

Mr McLeod, like many of the men Dr Mackay interviewed, enjoys adding to his tool collection: ''My guess is that for blokes, it's the same sort of euphoric rush that [women] get when they go shopping for clothes,'' he says, laughing.

''It's not possible to have too many.''

But given that most jobs necessitate a trip to the hardware store to buy new gear, he is not convinced that doing it yourself saves money.

Dave Elliott, general manager of marketing for Mitre 10, says the home improvement industry (trade and DIY) is worth $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year.

The country's largest home improvement and garden retailer, with 83 stores, Mitre 10 has recognised that skills are not always being passed down between generations and posted advice online. Its ''Easy As'' videos on YouTube have had more than 2 million views since April 2012, the most popular clips showing how to build a deck, build a fence, paint an interior wall, fix a scratch on a wall and replace a section of guttering.

Like rival Bunnings, it also offers DIY workshops aimed specifically at women and children.

Dr Mackay says all of the DIYers he interviewed took pride and satisfaction from the experience and it is important not to under-state the ''amount of fun'' people associate with DIY these days.

But renovations do not always go to plan. Dunedin builder Arthur Stone is called once or twice a year to rectify mistakes made by homeowners, mostly involving framing or something that needs to be sealed to keep water out: roofs, flashings, windows, showers or baths. Others take out walls and wonder why their ceiling has started to sag.

In hard financial times, it makes sense for people to do DIY but they need to understand the building code: ''There's a lot of red tape and if they don't do it properly, they can have an issue when they try to on-sell ... It could cost them a lot of money.''

DIY disasters can also have serious consequences for people's health. The ACC says there were 23,523 new DIY-related claims and 57,350 new gardening-related injuries last year and that together with ongoing payments for previous claims, these cost more than $54 million.

In other cases the only thing wounded is people's pride. One of the men Dr Mackay interviewed hacksawed through the mains water pipe during the final stages of a bathroom renovation, resulting in a small flood and a desperate trip to a hardware store 10 minutes before it closed.

Another painted himself into a corner of his roof and, with the ladder on the other side of the house, had to wait up in the heat until the paint dried.

''An interesting twist,'' he says, ''was the positive spin many of them attached to their `projects-gone-wrong'. This was explained by the fact that the DIY disaster was evidence that a homeowner was at least prepared to try doing their own home improvements, an expression of the highly valued Kiwi `have-a-go' ethos.''

It is a culture that intrigues those overseas. People Dr Mackay spoke to in Britain and the United States were astounded to learn some New Zealanders had their own concrete mixers and trailers.

''We've got large sections in comparison and sheds and garages with space so we can have the luxury of `over-stocking' ...'' he says, laughing.

''We also have different housing styles. With our tradition of building with wood, you're able to do quite a bit. In London, with its apartment blocks, you're kind of limited in what you can do.''

That might change in the future with talk of medium-rise apartments to fight urban sprawl in Auckland.

But Dr Mackay says the aspiration to own a home and put one's own stamp on it is still strong, especially among the younger generation. One couple he interviewed had matched their bathroom paint colour to the cover of an album by their favourite band, Nirvana.

''It's such a human quality to want to personalise your environment and because we're New Zealanders with that strong have-a-go attitude, I think it [DIY] will always be there ... I just don't think you're going to see people hanging from ladders building on extensions unless they're qualified professionals or in a trade.''

Dr Mackay has had his own experience of DIY. He and his partner spent many weekends doing up their first home before it was ''wiped out'' by the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

After renting, the couple moved into a home that had been built for them but could not come to terms with being in a brand-new house: ''There was nothing we could do. It had all been done. And we've since sold it and moved into a doer-upper.''

Like those he interviewed, they have learned what their capabilities are, where the traps are, and are being more selective about which projects they tackle, he says.

''But we're back into it and really enjoying it.'The earthquake made him rethink the idea that New Zealanders were losing their DIY skills, he adds.

''When confronted with a really serious housing issue, it was just incredible to watch communities and neighbours get out their tools and start patching up parts of their houses, putting tarpaulins on roofs and doing temporary fixes to driveways. It was quite incredible to see the skill set come out and it was [from] all generations.''

''There's those moments, during the Depression, during the [second world] war and so forth ... when it becomes a necessity again and what comes to the fore is our attitude of having a go rather than relying on others.''

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