In November, 1922, the Egyptologist Howard Carter removed the final bricks sealing the entrance to the hitherto lost tomb of Tutankhamun, Egypt's boy pharaoh from 1332- 1323 BC.

Unusually, the tomb — packed with over 5000 regal funerary items — had survived virtually intact. Treasures included a solid gold coffin and death mask, jewel chests and the like, and more prosaic items for the deceased's afterlife, such as food, wine, sandals and linen underwear.

Tutankhamun's mummy lay in the innermost of three ornate, nested coffins, collectively weighing about 1.5 tonnes, contained within a stone sarcophagus surrounded by four gilded wooden shrines. The tomb being unusually small, the wooden shrines had been assembled within the tomb itself — in other words, they had been prefabricated, with components code-marked to aid assembly.

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As happens today with maddening furniture kitsets, the workmen had here and there mistakenly tried to join mismatched pieces. Patience exhausted, in time-honoured fashion they simply reached for a bigger hammer and bashed the blighters into place. Three and a half millennia later, their burred ends testify to good old on-site pragmatism.

This year's refreshingly convivial Waitangi Day celebrations were conducted within coo-ee of the so-called Treaty House — another prefab construction.


"Prefabbed" in Sydney, it was built in 1833 for the British Resident, James Busby, and the original "key" marks on the framing timbers can still be seen on an intentionally exposed cross-section of wall.

In short, prefab has been around from the get-go.

The old New Zealand Railways department built its own staff houses and operating structures from way back in the 1870s.

After World War I, the department established its own kitset construction factory at Frankton Junction, near Hamilton, complete with a sawmill using timber from government forests.

It even boasted a plumbing department, producing its own baths, sinks, piping and spouting.

A range of prefab houses and structures were churned out, based on adaptable core designs. Later, state housing — although mainly built by private contractors — was derived from similar repertoires of pre-approved basic designs.

All in all, the Railways house construction model was a roaring success.

In a recent article, economist Shamubeel Eaqub — he of "zombie town" notoriety — while calling for a greatly expanded housing programme, laments the relatively small local market that purportedly constrains us from producing competitive volume kitset housing.

Excuse me. How is it that, nearly a century ago, when we were a quarter of the population we are now, we somehow had the necessary "scale" to produce volume kitset housing that fitted the bill, while also employing local materials and workers?

Eaqub was part of the three-person panel commissioned by Labour to produce a report — devoid of the previous Government's in-denial spin — on the current housing situation.

Their findings, released this week, make for sorry reading, with homelessness, and home ownership and affordability rates in cellar-dweller land.

Despite his reservations about "scale", Shamubeel is still a kitset fan.

But he answers his own question when he says local manufacturers need volume orders.
Exactly. And NZ Ltd has already been there, done that when our "scale" was far less.
All it needs is the political will to reboot it, even if it means doing it in a public works context, as we did with the NZ Railways model.

It's pathetic that "affordable" housing plans define "affordable" as being in the half-million dollar range.

Even for those up for it, it's mainly a recipe for mortgage slavery.

We can build basic houses for half that amount, even in Auckland, by making creative use of Government land and existing financial and infrastructure resources — interest-free funding through our own Reserve Bank for starters.

But expectations for first houses have to be realistic and modest.

For a few tips, revisit some of those early kitset railways and state houses ... and million-dollar leaky-home owners, eat your heart out.