As I sat down to a slice of toast this morning, I got thinking about our recent European sojourn. You see my wife and I just returned from a month of road-tripping around Europe, in particular Eastern Europe. The trip was part sightseeing, but mainly about getting back to my roots and visiting where my parents grew up in Hungary. We also took the opportunity to visit several important sites related to the Holocaust and sadly walked amongst the locations where some six million of my tribe were murdered. Sobering stuff.
But as I was eating my toast, my mind moved to less depressing issues. Specifically baking. I’m a big fan of Vogel’s bread and would never go past a slice (always thick or, preferably extra thick) of Vogel’s original with a hearty spreading of butter and Crunchy Peanut Butter (Fix and Fogg being my regular go-to).
But even Vogels, my favourite for decades, doesn’t get a look in when it comes to European baking. My wife is adamant it has to do with the type of grains they use to make flour but, whatever it is, European baking is just incredible.
And baking is a bit of a metaphor for a lot of things over there. As we tripped around we stayed at a huge variety of AirBnB locations – new builds, old houses, and the odd Soviet-era shapeless and uninspiring brutalist apartments. What they all had in common, however, was the quality of the build and the focus on longevity and comfort.
Even the place we stayed in Krakow, which looked like it hadn’t been updated (let-alone cleaned) since Lenin was still singing the Internationale, had decent central heating, fantastic double or triple glazing, thoughts of airflow and the like. Indeed, I spent a significant part of our month away playing with those incredible European windows. Anyone who has been over there will know instantly what I’m talking about, the ones that swing open from the side, but can also pivot from the bottom to let some airflow in.
It got me thinking about how we do things back here in New Zealand. Quite frankly, our houses are crap. With a building code that suggests 50 years is the expected lifespan for a dwelling. Driving past plenty of thousand-year-old buildings in Europe that are still functional, made me think about the craziness of this.
And every few years we have another disaster caused by this shortsighted and short-term approach to design. Kiln-dried timber turning to pulp (or, worse, growing an interesting selection of life-threatening moulds) and requiring huge rebuilds. Monolithic coatings that do an amazing job of funnelling our not-inconsiderable rainfall straight to those nicely absorbent timbers. And Gib board. Don’t start me on Gib board. A product that starts off as incredibly fragile and easily damaged and gets worse over time. And my pet favourite – a reliance on MDF or what those in the trade call WeetBix. Composite timber which is, to put it simply, a whole lot of sawdust held together with nasty toxin-filled glues. When I built our own home 20 years or so ago my bottom line was not a single piece of MDF would come across the threshold. A goal that I managed to tick off.
I know we’re a settler country and that a couple of hundred years ago those hardy types from England came over and tamed the jungle, cut down trees and knocked up quick shacks to keep the rain off their heads. We don’t have thousands of years of history of built environments with a view to longevity. Even our indigenous people tended, broadly speaking, to be somewhat peripatetic and hence adopted building techniques that were largely non-durable. But still. We’ve matured, surely?
The other bugbear I have is this preoccupation with size. In Europe we stayed at a number of places that were entirely functional within a small footprint. 50-100 square metres is utterly doable as an apartment if when designing it one thinks about storage space, communal areas and broader city planning.
We’re not a third-world country but you wouldn’t know it looking at our houses. Our forebears, or at least a large proportion of them, came from Europe and had a history of quality built environments encouraging healthy minds and healthy bodies. We really need to think about improving our approach to the homes we live in. And improve our baking at the same time.