House design rules need common sense

00:00, Feb 28 2013

At the end of August 2010, the Nelson Mail published on its front page a story and series of photos explaining how proposed new planning rules and regulations would affect housing design in the city. Controls relating to garages and fences in particular were singled out as likely to cause a "public backlash".

That happened, with feedback including terms like "draconian", "ridiculous" and "pathetic". Nelson MP Nick Smith got in on the act, warning the council not to be "too pedantic with regulations about what people can do on their property". A couple of days later it emerged that a photo of an award-winning concrete block and cedar home in the city had been used by the council as an example of a home considered "low in amenity".

The Mail, in an editorial on September 1 that year, advised the council to tread warily, suggesting that the line between best practice and nanny state intrusion is "fine and flimsy". Telling landowners that they "cannot build a fence or grow a hedge taller than waist-height on suburban streets, and bringing restrictive new laws around positioning garages, is an overly intrusive and potentially costly nonsense," the editorial declared.

The council was not deterred and the plan change was introduced following that year's local election, with its effects taking place from July 1 last year amid further warnings. So the issue is nothing new; neither is the angst that the reworked plan is continuing to cause.

A basic aim was to make streetscapes more "people-oriented" and "improve the interface between private and public spaces". Such notions seem fine in theory, if a little fanciful, but the devil as always is in the detail. Attempting to impose one-size-fits-all ideas to architectural design is always going to be difficult at best.

The latest issue to arise over the new regulations concerns a house turned down because its street-facing windows would be too small and it featured a garage built within a four-metre setback. Both rules seem to defy common sense. In this instance, the house appears to have been planned to face the sun, with small windows to the south and also over-looking the street. This makes sense in terms of practical, environmental considerations - passive solar heating is an increasingly recognised consideration in house design.

Homeowners and designers should not be penalised or constrained simply because of the direction individual streets happen to run. Not everyone fancies living in a glasshouse facing the street. The garage rule is also problematic. Driveways are expensive. Forcing people to add thousands of dollars to their building costs simply to park a garage away from public view is absurd.

Sections are becoming smaller as land values soar. The leaky buildings issue forced up construction costs significantly. New builds have been comparatively rare as Nelson's economy continues to look fragile. Overly prescriptive rules preventing people from making the most of their sections are a nonsense. It is to be hoped a challenge before the Environment Court restores common sense to the issue.