New housing solutions desperately needed

17:57, Jan 22 2013

In the first of a weekly column on architecture and design in the South Island, DAVID KILLICK asks: is big really better?

Strange to read how more Cantabrians are apparently seeking bigger homes. Real estate agents and housing companies say four-bedroom homes are easier to sell.

But does everyone really want a bigger home? Do they need one?

I would argue not. More affordable, efficient, comfortable, healthy, flexible, future-proof, eco-friendly homes that are easy and economical to run - yes. And with access to spacious, safe outdoor recreation areas. But not necessarily bigger.

There is, of course, a difference between what people really want and what businesses say they want. Bigger houses are naturally more profitable.

Building homes and subdivisions in the same old way is a blinkered approach to a massive and growing need for new housing in New Zealand. It's also grossly inefficient.


It comes as no surprise that house sizes have steadily increased while section sizes have decreased. The single-storey bungalow on a large suburban section was a New Zealand stereotype of the 1950s and 60s popularised by British politician Austin Mitchell's 1972 book, The Half-Gallon Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise.

The move towards larger houses started in the late 1970s and peaked during the boom years of the new millennium. Bigger, glitzier multi-storeyed homes, often with huge glazed facades and flat or complex roof forms, a designer kitchen, numerous ensuites, and monster garages became the aspiration for many - even for empty-nesters.

That has all changed. The leaky homes crisis was the first blow. Then the global financial crisis hit. Its impact in America was immense - more so than New Zealand where it has nonetheless still been significant.

Americans are downsizing. They are realising bigger is not necessarily better. Conspicuous consumption and unbridled growth really are unsustainable - economically, environmentally, and socially.

Some Americans are opting for tiny homes, a movement inspired by the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. Cluster housing, where roads and cars are minimised, is catching on. So is co-housing - where residents develop a site together and share facilities while retaining their own units.

In Europe and Britain, where space has always been at a premium, apartment living, close-knit communities, and village life are the norm. New housing is increasingly eco-friendly. Germany is a leader in energy efficiency and solar technology.

Across the Tasman, for example in Adelaide, multi-unit community-style living developments are being built.

In New Zealand, too: witness the Hive (Home Innovation Village) on the A & P Showground site in Christchurch, where prefabricated, transportable show homes are on display.

Arrowtown company Space - Moveable Rooms assembles units and trucks them around the South Island. The rooms can be custom-made and expanded as required.

Victoria University architecture graduates entered their transportable energy-efficient house, called First Light House, in the 2011 Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC. They won third place.

New books on compact houses are in big demand.

None of this is surprising. Nuclear families with two parents and 2.5 children are not the only ones in need of housing. Couples, singles, "melded" families, elderly people wanting to stay in their own homes, and a more mobile workforce - all these groups need accommodation.

In light of all these developments, a push towards selling bigger homes in Canterbury is at variance with global trends and market realities. Why not design for the future and think differently?

Smaller homes need not be poky; they can be efficient and comfortable, if they are well designed.

Rather than have a "four-bedroom" house, you have a house with a series of flexible spaces that could serve double or triple duty as a bedroom, workroom or study. Cutting down on unnecessary entrance halls and corridors saves space.

Visit a European furniture store and you will see all manner of clever storage units you just don't find in New Zealand. Everything has its place. Experience tells us that the more space we have, the more we tend to fill it up with clutter.

How much stuff do you really need? In the internet era, people are finding they don't need to amass so much stuff as their parents did, and technology makes it possible to live and work just about anywhere.

Using land efficiently instead of simply plonking a house in the middle of a section also makes sense and cuts down on sprawl. What is the point of all those grass berms, median strips, and unused front lawns? Shared landscaping and garden areas can actually be larger.

Smaller homes are also more affordable. Housing needs to be affordable. It isn't.

New housing solutions are desperately needed. Better design is one approach - including how land and subdivisions are developed. Innovative financial solutions are another, such as offering longterm leases.

Christchurch has a bright future - but only if we are bold and have the nous to seize new opportunities.

David Killick is an architectural and design writer. He edits At Home in The Press.

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