Developer takes hi-tech approach

LIZ MCDONALD
Last updated 10:46 13/01/2014
Roy Hamilton
Stacy Squires/Fairfax NZ

HIGHLY AMBITIOUS: Developer Roy Hamilton at the Highfield subdivision on Prestons Rd.

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Cars have advanced hugely in the past decade, but our houses are much the same.

That's something irking Roy Hamilton, a Christchurch engineer-turned-property-developer who collects classic motor vehicles for relaxation.

If anyone is well-placed to address the anomaly, Hamilton is. He is building enough homes for almost 5000 people in his billion-dollar Highfield subdivision.

"What should housing of the future should be like?" he asks. "There's a huge lag in technology in terms of the most costly asset you'll ever have.

"I'd be really disappointed if we look back in 20 years and we've just built more of the same. Christchurch now is a fantastic opportunity to be different".

Hamilton's 2200-lot subdivision got ministerial approval last month. Groundworks have begun and the first residents will be onsite by 2015.

With business partner Brian Thompson, he plans to build smarthomes - accessible for all ages and abilities, energy efficient and pleasant to live in, future-proofed, and technologically smart.

It's not costly or hard, he says. And it's where the city should be going.

There's no usual route into land development. There's no qualification equipping people to turn bare land into busy communities without creating social disasters or money holes with unhappy creditors.

Rangiora-born Hamilton began with a civil engineering degree at Canterbury University.

He dipped a toe into developing townhouses under the company name Maxim, then went to work for engineering consultants Beca, including two years in Papua New Guinea overseeing government infrastructure development.

A move to engineering, surveying and planning company Davis Ogilvie saw him work his way up to chief executive and managing director.

Hamilton says he is "a practical guy" who always wanted to build what he helped create as a consultant.

He left the corporate world and revived Maxim, developing homes for the Avonside House Trust to accommodate disabled residents. They were the first homes in Canterbury to get the Lifemark - boosting accessibility with wide doors, reachable handles, level entrances, and a host of other design features.

Maxim grew to a $20 million-a-year operation doing consultancy work after earthquakes, and watched the growing demand for new homes. They submitted consent plans for Highfield in 2011, on a bigger-than-Hagley- Park chunk of north Christchurch known as the Mills- Hills block.

When Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee approved the region's "Land Use Recovery Plan (Lurp)" last month, Brownlee's signature plucked Highfield from its meandering path towards the Environment Court.

Hamilton is relieved but calls the two-year process to get approval frustrating, especially as "after all this, we've basically got back what we asked for."

He is now concentrating on Highfield Park Ltd to build the subdivision, leaving Maxim under the watch of co- shareholder and director Logan Townsend.

Combining design with construction is not a common model for land development.

"Each side of the fence sees the other as extremely risky."

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But Hamilton believes the best way to remove risk is to understand and manage it "and by both designing and building, we can control the entire outcome".

Hamilton gained big-scale subdivision experience consulting on Northwood, where he worked with Thompson, now co-director and co- shareholder at Highfield Park.

"Everything is about people. You can be as smart as you like, but you are stronger as a group. An individual can be successful but it's much harder."

He says the key to tackling such big projects, both logistically and financially, is doing it in bite-sized stages. Getting the beginning and ending right. Trying to find the sweetspot of matching the rhythm of market demand.

"A 2200 lot project, yes it's enormous, it's fantastic. But the reality is it doesn't all get built at once.

"The scale of this doesn't faze us at all."

First up will be 125 homes - "a much more manageable mouthful". The long cycle of the land development market means possibly having to brake quickly, he says.

Almost all the homes will be custom-built for buyers, and the developers are looking for home builders to help deliver their vision.

The vision means solar power systems free to buyers, passive solar design, thorough insulation, economical use of space.

Owners can add more solar panels for self-sufficiency, and may eventually be able to sell excess power back into the national grid.

But Hamilton eschews the "buzzwords" green and eco- friendly.

He wants to do it with fundamentals. The engineers' approach.

They will also be encouraging high-tech homes. Today's possibilities include computerised monitoring of motion sensors for safety, energy and appliance use, and medical care devices. Like the systems a car uses to track fuel use, park itself, and issue directions and warnings.

It sounds like science fiction but they hope the first Highfield homes will include some of these smart features.

To date Highfield Park Ltd has funded everything itself, but with the machinery arriving on site they are looking for both financial partners and bank funding, aiming for a ratio of 30 per cent equity to 70 per cent borrowing.

For all Christchurch rebuild projects, Hamilton believes overseas investors need to be invited in. Some overseas entities are almost too big to notice the city, he says.

"There's an avalanche of construction coming - everything will be fully extended in 12 months."

He says it won't be just overseas workers required, but businesses, structures, products and supply chains.

"I don't think there's much understanding, but this is massive, it's phenomenal the amount of money and resources this will take."

Most of the catch-up will need to be in Christchurch, where house building is at half normal levels, not double as in the Selwyn and Waimakariri districts.

Hamilton is glad land developers can "finally get on with it" with the Lurp in place.

He believes the chance of an over-saturated section market is low, as most developers are big enough to stagger sections production. "There's always a tail, but I would be very surprised if there was massive oversupply in the next five years".

He is insistent that Canterbury now is the only place to do business.

"Anybody that leaves town now is mad, this is the best place to be, this is where all the opportunities are."

- The Press

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