Builder Dick Willson, the Apprentice’s Champion
Dick Willson was born in Napier 1932, not long after the Napier earthquake, to a father working in demolition and rebuilding work. Dick could have gone to University, but chose to complete a carpentry and joinery apprenticeship, and worked in the family building and joinery firm. Dick went on to complete a course in drafting and drew untold number of house plans over the years.
Dick took up a position at Auckland Technical Institute in 1959, teaching carpentry and joinery apprentices attending block courses. Dick built his first family home from plans and specifications he prepared himself, dug all the foundations by hand and carried out all the carpentry work.
Dick gave his best to the job of teaching carpentry and joinery apprentices. There were no suitable textbooks available, so he developed his own detailed drawings and data sheets for light timber construction that were published in 1971 in a book titled “New Zealand Construction Details”. He wrote several other books on timber construction and house plans. Dick marketed his technical publications to the wider industry through advertising a Technical Library within The New Zealand Building Economist from 1972. In 1990 he purchased The New Zealand Building Economist and became Editor, cementing his association with this publication that would last 46 years.
The New Zealand Building Economist began in 1965 as “Monthly Construction Costs”, then as “Current Construction Costs”, in 1967 before emerging as “The New Zealand Building Economist, Incorporating Current Construction Costs”, in 1972.
Lacking funds for new machinery for the ATI workshop, Dick and other teachers had apprentices build a full-size transportable house in the quadrangle, instead of just scale models. The house was subsequently sold providing the required funds. Of course, it was well built and was the forerunner for many future projects providing real work experience for the apprentices.
Dick also joined the apprentice training board lending his experience and wisdom to apprentice training schemes and was most disappointed when apprenticeships were discontinued. Dick was also a judge at the skill Olympics for apprentices from countries around the world. Dick was particularly impressed by a carpentry apprentice from Sweden who showed his skills with a bow saw, something not seen in New Zealand.
Three weeks before Dick passed away, he called me to advise of his ill health and to ask if I was still interested in taking over The New Zealand Building Economist. As a student quantity surveyor, I learned basic house building detailing and technology from one of Dick’s textbooks in the early 1980’s. When I first met Dick in the early 2000’s, I knew what it felt like to meet one of your living hero’s. A mighty kauri has fallen.
By Matthew Ensoll, FNZIQS, Registered Quantity Surveyor, mostly edited from the Eulogy for Dick Willson, by his younger brother Ted Willson 30 April 2018.