Design critical to intensification

This Issue This is a part of the Achieving quality feature

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Rob Guild, Principal Architect, Buchan, says that, as housing intensification in Aotearoa New Zealand increases, we should be looking to well-designed cities such as Melbourne to ensure we achieve quality and avoid poor design and urban amenity.

WHILE INCREASING HOUSING supply is urgent, New Zealand is at a crossroads with a boom in medium-density housing developments expected once new planning controls for the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2021 become operative later this year.

Coordinated design strategy needed

Auckland, in particular, needs a more coordinated design strategy for how density occurs to ensure proper amenity to serve the community.

New Zealand reached a new record in the number of homes consented in the year to February 2022. Building approvals surpassed 49,700, up 25% on the same period in 2021, according to Stats NZ. Townhouses, flats and units (17,403) accounted for 35% of applications, with 3,910 apartments consented (8%). Auckland alone experienced a 22% increase in home consents compared to the previous year.

Reinstate government architect

Now more than ever, central and local government need proactive solutions to assist developers and architects to design better.

New Zealand could benefit from the reinstatement of a central government architect to champion design quality and provide an informed set of guidelines. This would also help promote the positive social outcomes good design has, addressing issues such as housing affordability, sustainability and city growth.

Consider Australian design governance

Australia has a network of government architects that set best practice for the design of quality buildings and public spaces. A government architect is appointed in most Australian states.

The Government Architects Network of Australia (GANA), a formalised, national collaborative group, meets annually to share and transfer knowledge and research. It provides authoritative and consolidated advice on state and federal policies relating to the built environment to influence good design practice.

While organisations like Kāinga Ora are focused on providing affordable housing of various types and tenures and connecting homes with jobs, transport, open spaces and services, New Zealand severely lacks design governance.

The National Policy Statement on Urban Development offers some positive steps in promoting higher density around town centres and transport nodes, with less prescription around car parking. However, it fails to focus on design quality for future developments and the level of amenity human beings need in higher-density settings.

The rules and regulations in our planning controls are prescriptive rather than descriptive. They don’t talk about the important qualities that humans need in terms of light, privacy, sun and the environment that they live in. We need to foster creativity and collegial working relationships between architects and professional, technical and policy staff in the engineering, town planning, property services and legal disciplines. That’s where the role of a government architect steps in.

Looking abroad to rethink density

New Zealand should be looking abroad to cities like Melbourne to benchmark successful policies and projects to help local councils improve new developments here.

Melbourne has great examples where its local government has been proactive in using its urban design department to facilitate positive outcomes for residents.

Developer incentives exist if projects contribute positively to the local context and neighbourhood character in their designs, which can result in an uplift in development area to offset additional costs that developers may incur.

The Victorian Government has previously led design competitions to promote medium- density innovation without limiting creativity. The success of these initiatives has resulted in new frameworks for the outcomes the government wants to see and will reward. If you use those, you get fast-track planning, for example.

Last year, Victoria established a central Melbourne design guide to revitalise the city. This included a requirement for inner-city design projects to be people-centred, with a special focus on street-level design.

The Victorian Government also has a better apartments design standards policy in place. This sets design standards for apartment buildings around external amenity, including green open space, accommodating families and the safety and privacy of residents.

It stipulates that all homes have access to air, nature, sunlight and personal space and that they make a positive contribution to their city neighbourhoods through their design and amenity. The aim of the guidelines is not to stifle creativity but to achieve quality, liveable and attractive apartment buildings that increase green canopy cover in urban areas and contribute positively to the local context and neighbourhood character.

More well-designed apartments needed

The pace of the housing boom in New Zealand will be dictated by a steady renewal in migration. Border closures and travel restrictions triggered a net migration loss of 3,900 in 2021 – the first time since 2012.

While some economists predict up to 20,000 New Zealanders a year could leave for Australia, in recent decades, outflow figures have been offset by immigration numbers arriving from other countries.

New migrants need somewhere to live. Population growth driven by migration has historically put pressure on housing supply – supply that is already under immense affordability stress.

The primary issue for many is getting any home. People are living in caravans and garages because they simply can’t get a home. It’s dire for a significant sector of our population.

One chance to get this right

At present, it feels like we are focused on building any type of house to provide accommodation, which I understand, but I strongly oppose density for the sake of density. These buildings will be here for a long time. We only get one chance to get this right.

Although I think the legislation is being rushed through, there is still time with concerted effort to make sure higher-density outcomes are positive. We need to ensure we are building quality housing that is not only affordable now but also delivers a legacy of housing options for future generations.

There’s a risk we will receive low-quality housing, and my biggest fear is that we will lose sight of what people need to live in a quality environment.

Architects may not be able to influence a site’s location, but they can push for good design and more diversity within a complex to result in more amenity. Prospective design guidelines would provide practical ideas and standards for siting and building arrangement, building performance and fundamental dwelling amenity.

Auckland projects provide ideas

Buchan’s Horizon Apartments in Auckland is an example of how small interventions can make a real difference in creating community and amenity. The project by Reside, has a variety of apartment types and affordability options including 1, 2 and 3-bedroom apartments plus penthouses located in three pods and a north-facing block.

Each pod has its own entry and has been designed to foster a sense of community among each group of neighbours while providing privacy and security. The development has a strong dialogue with the street – it is purposefully set back from the road to maximise views. The composition of a series of smaller buildings enables the development to breathe.

Offering more than just housing

It’s no longer enough to think about an apartment complex on its own. We need to consider what it offers the broader community. Is there a grocer at the base? Does it offer gym facilities and communal picnic spaces? Is it a vibrant destination where people want to be? Will it stand the test of time in the long term?

Buchan’s design of St Marks (Stage 2) in Remuera melds residential and communal amenity in a medium-density setting. The development consists of 70 apartments and is divided into two and stepped back from the boundary to maximise landscaping and integration to the street. A terraced garden unifies the eastern and western buildings and creates a community focus with links to a secluded fern garden. Dense plantings of edible fruits, tall trees and vertical greenery provide shade and privacy and encourage gathering. Indoors, the lobby space with barista, lounge and library promotes a sense of community.

Proposed future retail activation to the ground floor includes a florist, with throughsite links to an existing café and restaurant. The apartments are specifically designed to facilitate ‘ageing in place’, featuring larger doors and a large lift car. External balconies can double as living room, gym or home office to flex with residents’ needs. Small design considerations can have significant impact on liveability.

Commitment for a better future

These projects are examples of why central and local government should commit to higher-quality design in medium-density housing. We need to urgently think about designing apartments that have high amenity and flexibility and that create vibrant communities.

Above all, people require a basic quality of life – access to outdoor spaces, sunlight, privacy and peace. If we forget those, we do so at our peril into the future.

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