Cities in flux

This Issue This is a part of the Tale of two cities feature

By - , Build 139

New Zealand is on the cusp of our largest-ever construction activity. While our two largest cities face some similar challenges, Christchurch has the exciting opportunity for a clean-slate renewal.

Auckland is predicted to grow by 1 million over the next 30 years.
Christchurch CBD awaiting the rebuild. This is looking towards Cathedral Square.

AUCKLAND AND CHRISTCHURCH are going through nothing less than transformations in the way they provide homes and workplaces for their residents. The impact of this on all of New Zealand will be significant, given that the two cities account for over 40% of our total population.

Christchurch’s challenge is a complete rebuild of its CBD as well as the creation of entire new suburbs and the repair of thousands of houses in new areas and in established neighbourhoods.

Auckland will transform for different reasons. There has been a gradual realisation that housing availability is poor and getting worse each year. Limited supply coinciding with the current growth stage of the property cycle has bumped prices too high for too many potential homeowners.

Biggest-ever building project

Plans are in place in both cities for large-scale construction, focused on affordable housing and more housing options in Auckland and new residential, commercial and civic buildings in Christchurch. Together, we have New Zealand’s biggest-ever building project.

It’s early days, but what do the two transformations have in common?

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Auckland’s affordability dilemma

Auckland has slowly become a place where home ownership in a decent part of town is only for those with top-bracket double incomes, bundles of savings brought back from overseas or older people who have already profited from Auckland home ownership.

For many, the only option is to buy in less-desirable neighbourhoods or on the city fringes with a long commute to work. It’s not quite a liveable city.

The city is projected to grow by a million people over the next 30 years, and predications say it needs around 13,000 new homes a year to house them. But Auckland has only built an average of around 6,000 new houses a year over the last 20 years, with a peak of 13,000 in 2004 and a low of 2,500 in 2009.

Unitary Plan provides solutions

Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan will address housing affordability by enabling large numbers of houses to be built faster and easier.

It hopes to make these houses desirable by placing most closer to urban areas where people want to live. The resulting intensification is better for transportation and promotes more apartment-style living.

Intensification is not without its opponents, however, with some not wanting 2 or 3 storey contemporary-style buildings in their single-level weatherboard neighbourhoods.

The Unitary Plan shows how 400,000 new homes can be built over the next 30 years, with approximately two-thirds within the current rural-urban boundary, and one-third outside. The plan was notified on 30 September 2013, but there is a long way to go before it can be enacted, as on-going submissions and a hearings process are expected to take 3 years.

An acceptable mix

Property Council of New Zealand Chief Executive Connal Townsend is cautiously optimistic. ‘The consultation and notification process will likely all boil down to one rational and achievable split of higher-density infill and city fringe development,’ he says.

‘It’s already proven politically difficult to stick with the volume of high-density dwellings that was initially proposed, and the consequence is fewer homes will be built than planned. But I think we’ll get a good mix that is both acceptable to the public and will take us a long way towards the volume targets.’

Sufficient construction capability might be the one constraint to achieving the plan.

‘Auckland Council says it can process 12,000 house consents each year, council has created urban design principles through the new Auckland Design Manual and quality of construction should be assured through measures such as the LBP Scheme.

‘Having enough skilled tradespeople and sufficient supply of materials is the major unknown.’

Connal thinks that provision of robust urban design guidelines is a key part of successful intensification, to ensure high quality and attractive buildings, and to give building neighbours confidence that new builds will fit in with their surroundings.

New Zealand Institute of Architects Auckland branch Chairman Richard Goldie agrees. ‘Community concerns about density are often really concerns about building quality,’ he says.

Housing Accord to get things started

While the Unitary Plan is being finalised, central government has stepped in to help Auckland Council better administer large-scale house construction. The Auckland Housing Accord came into effect in September, with the primary role of enabling central government to free up land for house building and to get council moving faster.

Essentially, the Accord unblocks the council’s slow consenting and approval process, making construction much more attractive for private developers. The type and price of new houses is largely up to the developer.

The Accord will fast-track land availability for 39,000 houses within the next 3 years. ‘It will enable low-rise greenfield developments to be consented in 6 months, when this previously took 3 years, and low-rise brownfield developments to be consented in 3 months,’ says Housing Minister Nick Smith. The Accord will expire when the Unitary Plan begins in 2016.

Auckland is predicted to grow by 1 million over the next 30 years.

Prospects for subdividing

Auckland homeowners are realising that the Unitary Plan may make it easier to subdivide and build additional houses on their land.

Bret Robinson, Director of Fowler Homes Auckland, says that, over recent months, the company has had an increase in homeowners enquiring about subdividing.

‘People are aware that changes to zoning and subdividable land sizes are coming with the Unitary Plan,’ he says. ‘Homeowners with larger sections are researching their options and working out the financials, with the goal of building one or two new dwellings on their property to help pay their own mortgage off.’

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Reconstructing Christchurch

Christchurch’s challenges are more complex than Auckland’s because essentially a whole new CBD needs to be created while city-wide infrastructure is fixed, new suburbs are created and houses are repaired.

The Christchurch rebuild also has an urgency that Auckland lacks, demonstrated by the much faster creation of agencies to organise reconstruction. These include Fletcher EQR to perform emergency and smaller-scale home repair, the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) to repair horizontal above and below-ground infrastructure, and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) to provide overarching temporary legislation. All were established within 6 months of the February 2011 earthquake.

Housing progressing

Work in the suburbs is progressing under the SCIRT and Fletcher EQR schemes. In June 2013, the Fletcher EQR programme reached the halfway mark, with 40,000 homes repaired.

Construction of new homes is gaining momentum. Housing consents set a monthly record of 198 in June, followed by 309 in September. As in Auckland, city fringe areas are being targeted for lower-density developments with predominantly freestanding traditional homes – urban centres and the CBD will have higher-density apartment-style developments.

Having land to build on has been key. The process of getting land titled, subdivisions or developments approved and infrastructure in has now turned to design and consenting. Construction should ramp up this summer.

CBD rebuild slower to start

A guiding document to address the CBD rebuild, the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan (CCRP), was completed in July 2012 over a fast 100-day period. It contains a blueprint that provides details on the anchor projects built across the central city area stretching from Hagley Park to Barbadoes Street.

The government is contributing $2.9 billion towards total costs, and it is hoped that completion of the anchor projects will entice additional on-going private development to the CBD.

Key to creation of the new CBD is securing land for the anchor projects, often requiring buying premises from existing business. About 50% of all land required has been purchased. Work has begun on the ground, with the start of work on the Avon River precinct the first tangible sign of progress.

New look CBD

The earthquakes destroyed many of Christchurch’s renowned CBD buildings, and the design of replacement buildings is a contentious issue.

‘We won’t be replicating what used to be there,’ says David Hill, a partner in Wilson and Hill Architects and Chair of the Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

‘We have lost some great buildings, and those that have remained are precious to us. However, in 2013, things are different.

‘There are more things to address in building design than ever before – influence on street edges, seismic protection and safer design, increased occupant demands for light, space and reduced energy consumption, green building practices and integration with the surrounding environment,’ he says.

‘As there will be a large number of new buildings all becoming available at a similar time, building owners will have to compete much harder for tenants than they used to – A-grade buildings will be desirable.’

Christchurch CBD awaiting the rebuild. This is looking towards Cathedral Square.

Employing new seismic technologies

Engineers from the University of Canterbury are leading the way in the development of new seismic design technologies – some that will be used in new CBD buildings.

An example is the PRESSS (PREcast Seismic Structural System) frame and wall system in which precast concrete beams and columns are joined together with unbonded post-tensioned steel tendons. In an earthquake, the concrete members are free to rock from side to side at the joints, while the steel tendons hold everything generally in place.

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Problems faced by both cities

Compared to Auckland, Christchurch’s transformation is more varied, more expensive, more urgent and already under way. Auckland’s growth surge is in residential housing, and while the Auckland Housing Accord is kicking things off, the final roadmap provided by the Unitary Plan is 3 years away.

Among the differences there are similarities that represent challenges to the industry and changes in the way people live and work in our biggest cities.

Resource availability

The likelihood of a shortage of tradespeople and construction resources is difficult to quantify, but the volume of construction delivered over the past few years will need to increase significantly if building targets are to be met.

The question is, do we have enough people with the right skills and can sufficient building materials be supplied at a reasonable cost?

Design and quality

Building design is important, and city residents will demand quality in the construction and appearance of new buildings. People’s concerns about growth and expansion are often fears about poor quality and appearance – many are aware that poor design contributed to the leaky building disaster.

Higher-density living

Many aspirant homeowners will have to consider higher-density housing if they want to live close to urban centres.

In both cities, stand alone properties in central areas will remain expensive, and affordable traditional house options will be on the urban fringes.

Luckily, people will have more choice in apartment-style properties.

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Auckland is predicted to grow by 1 million over the next 30 years.
Christchurch CBD awaiting the rebuild. This is looking towards Cathedral Square.