Editorial: Good design at what cost?

Few things are more important to us than the homes we live in, the Productivity Commission said in its final report on housing affordability. It described housing as "a fundamental determinant of wellbeing, central to health, family stability, and social cohesion".

It also emphasised the importance of affordable quality housing for the country's economy. If housing is more expensive than it needs to be, the cost to individuals and families, and the economy overall, is significant.

In Hamilton's section-starved housing market, vendors call the shots on price. The strength of the demand can be gauged from the numbers of people who slept in their cars overnight in the recent clamour to buy 56 Rototuna sections.

But buying a section is only the first hurdle. There's a big demand for construction, too. Waikato builder John Macdonald, Master Builders national vice-chairman, listed several causes: the city has grown over the past five years, too few houses have been built, interest rates are low and Asian developers have been buying up land with imported money.

The Hamilton City Council presents a more formidable hurdle. It must be satisfied with the designs for new homes. Rules recently introduced by the council (already being applied to three Rototuna subdivisions) stipulate that garages must be built at the back of the house, so that living areas are closer to the street.

The reasoning can be challenged: the changes are aimed at cutting down crime (by moving houses closer to the street but reducing privacy?) and improving urban design (according to whose values?)

Whatever the crime-fighting and aesthetic benefits of the rules, property owners may find their houses become significantly less affordable. Hamilton builder Alex Burns foresees section costs rising by $12,000-$15,000.

It may be too early to pass judgment. City environments general manager Brian Croad reasonably pointed out that the changes are still bedding in. But he also said the council is intent on improving Hamilton's urban design, and building plans "need to take into account those design objectives council wants to achieve". That's an ominous sign the council won't be relaxing the rules, even if the bedding-in process shows they are adding unreasonably to housing costs.