Are we fixated with a quarter-acre dream?

21:57, Jun 24 2014
Barbadoes St apartment building design
NEW LIVING: Design for a Barbadoes St apartment building for property investor Liz Harris..

It's great to meet positive people; their energy and enthusiasm rubs off. That is especially the case in Christchurch, a city where it is far too easy to get weighed down by seemingly intractable problems, of which there are many.

Can one or two people actually make a real difference?

Refreshingly, yes. A couple of weeks ago in this column, developer Richmond Paynter and his wife, interior designer Susie Paynter, outlined their plans for Miro apartments, an upmarket residential development on the corner of Peterborough and Colombo streets.

The Paynters are optimists who see the glass as half full with plenty of opportunity and potential for the city.

Liz Harris is also an optimist. One of Christchurch's biggest private property investors, Harris owned a string of apartment buildings and boarding houses, some of which provided accommodation for single people, beneficiaries, and those on low incomes.

The earthquakes destroyed 19 of those buildings containing about 100 apartments and rooms.


Two months after the February 22, 2011 earthquake, Harris gave me a tour behind the cordon inside the red zone. Some tenants were hanging on; others had had to go.

Old two-storey wooden houses, villas, and an early Sir Miles Warren concrete-block building would all be demolished.

Harris had no intention of quitting, but already had plans to rebuild.

Three years later, after wrangles with insurance companies and multiple bureaucracies, she is succeeding: two apartment buildings have been completed and several more are underway or on the drawing board.

Although they are not upmarket places, Harris insists it is vital that affordable rental apartments are warm and comfortable, light and spacious feeling, with quality fittings, good kitchens, and well thought-out use of space. "If you give a tenant a nice place, they respect it more," she says.

Although not all the developments might make economic sense, at least not straight away, Harris says she wants to put something back and rebuild her business. With any project, it helps to have an architect who shares your vision. One of the firms designing new apartment buildings for Harris is Context Architects, which has offices in Auckland and Christchurch.

The firm has strong ideas on the need for better designed high and medium-density residential buildings and housing that creates communities.

Context Architects has designed award-winning projects in Britain, and according to architects Alisdair Daines and Karen Manson, Christchurch could benefit from a new approach, too.

Architects and developers must understand what people want. It is not a case of copying overseas designs; rather it is designing buildings to suit the locality. Christchurch has lost a lot of its character and heritage, "but it's still there in our environment," says Daines.

Indeed. We have a fantastic natural environment and lifestyle, with views of the alps, estuary, or Port Hills, for example, but many buildings ignore it.

People want space and privacy, not shoeboxes. Landscaping is important. Without quality outdoor space, people will move on.

"A sense of ownership and community is what we need in the central city," says Manson.

Details matter, including front doors to the street, so neighbours can say hello to each other. You can also tell a lot about the quality of a development by where the rubbish bins are stored.

Sustainable homes that are well- insulated and ventilated save energy and cut power bills. They are warmer, healthier, and more comfortable.

With use of the best materials, such as SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels), building costs can be managed.

"There's no excuse for it being poorly designed or poorly built," says Daines.

There is a great opportunity in Christchurch for mixed-use residential, commercial, and retail, the architects say. Some Kiwis are still fixated with the "quarter-acre dream", says Manson, and cannot see any alternative.

This entrenched mindset is embodied by "Lawnmower Man" who insists everyone should be like him.

When I first wrote about apartments last year, I was amazed by some of the comments: "What if people do ethnic cooking?", "What if they play loud music?", "What if you have to see your neighbours?" Are Kiwis really that insular and narrow?

"That's Lawnmower Man!" exclaimed Karen Manson.

Reassuringly, more Kiwis now seem open to new ideas, especially those who have travelled.

This year, people welcomed the concept of the Paynters' apartment project. More people are seeking affordable, medium-density housing.

The market is there, but choice has been limited. Of course, the suburbs can be great, but they are not for everyone.

The idea of attractive townhouses or apartments is not new; architects Sir Miles Warren and the late Peter Beaven, among others, were designing them years ago.

Beaven was passionate about communities and humanistic architecture. Perhaps their time has come again.

Christchurch needs to embrace alternative housing options to create a sustainable future.

The Press