Aiming for quality design

Last updated 10:58 15/01/2014

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A well designed house need not be difficult to achieve, writes Astrid Andersen.

How do you define good design? To do that, it is important to differentiate between how something "looks" from the street and actual good design practices. In my book, good design hasn't changed for generations - it is about quality workmanship, quality materials and excellent decision making during every step of the process. What's fashionable may have changed but now more than ever, a greater level of importance must be placed on building new homes that will stay the course.

Christchurch has an unusually high proportion of homeowners building new homes or investing in substantial renovations to existing homes as a result of the earthquakes.

This renewed focus presents Christchurch city with an amazing opportunity, and one we must not squander. We have an opportunity to raise the quality of our housing stock by using the best building materials, techniques and design practices. We also have an opportunity to improve the aesthetic and sense of community of emerging subdivisions. Here is our chance to make sure that houses are built to the highest level of design, comfort, convenience and efficiency.

So, back to the hard question of how to define good design? Well, there are many books filling many libraries on the definition of good design and how to achieve it, but in my opinion, good design is about designing for purpose. It is about designing homes which reflect function and the environment, using materials that are high quality and sustainable, taking care to interpret and cater to clients' requirements and reflecting the relationship between the building and the community.

A rule of thumb is to build smaller and better, north facing, well insulated and heated homes, using the best materials possible and close to transport and other community amenities. Following those simple rules will ensure a home that will be relevant today and into the future. Most of all though it has to be a home you love - one that you and your family will be happy in, for however long you choose to spend there.

This is something that our parents and grandparents understood. They knew that quality and affordability go hand in hand. That less is sometimes more and that our homes and our communities are financially one of our greatest investments but one of our greatest legacies.

Take the example of the 8 Star Mod House designed by Bob Burnett, of Bob Burnett Architecture. As a 2013 ADNZ Resene Architectural Design Regional Award Winner, this home demonstrated how well designed and visually attractive a compact, cost effective and energy efficient home can be. Not only is it one of the first 8 star Homestar rated houses in the country, it was also designed to fit on to a small small infill site, and at only 113 square metres, it has four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a multifunction room providing two living spaces, and all for a construction cost of $300,000.

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Ultimately, good design is a subjective opinion. However Architectural Designers New Zealand has tried to pinpoint some of the practices that lead to bad or mediocre design to help provide a perspective on this topic.

There are several practices which raised debate but five key issues were selected as major offences.

Firstly taking a readymade plan that is not specific to a site and as such overlooks orientation, location or client requirements can sometimes deliver mediocrity.

Building a house that conforms to, but doesn't exceed the requirements of the New Zealand Building Code is another mistake. The code sets minimum, but not necessarily desirable standards.

The use of materials and fixtures that have a low initial cost but that have high maintenance costs or result in early replacement is not a good long-term outcome for home owners.

Using design gimmicks and ornamentation borrowed from another time that has no relevance to our modern day environment, climate or lifestyle can be a key reflection of poor design.

Finally and most importantly, the greatest offence is not utilising the services of a professional designer. This can result in ordinary design and also devalue a property and a community immediately. Given that this is potentially your biggest lifetime purchase it is important to make it the best and most well thought through.

By using a member of a professional organisation, like ADNZ, which operates under a code of ethics and therefore does not get commission or any form of "kickbacks", the public can be assured that the recommendations they receive are fit for purpose. Money spent on good advice rather than a discounted build made with poor materials is common sense.

We all have the power to demand and support good design practices, though time is of the essence and the need is great. Good design, and following the basic principles of building a home for a lifetime, shouldn't be sidestepped in order to meet immediate demand. The legacy of our future city and communities depends on it.

Astrid Andersen is the general manager of Architectural Designers New Zealand (ADNZ).

- The Press

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