Higher-density housing is transforming our cities and towns. The construction of townhouses and apartments could soon outnumber stand-alone homes. It isn’t a smooth change, however, with the pressure on to improve perceptions, lift quality and shrink carbon footprints.
OWNING A HOUSE has been more than just an aspiration for New Zealanders – it has been at the heart of our national identity. When Norman Kirk, years before becoming Prime Minister, couldn’t afford a builder, he did the work himself. In his spare time, he made concrete blocks from sand, cement and coke dust. He carried building materials 10 km home on his bike.
A shift in thinking
A preference for a house on its own section remained strong as the first terraced houses appeared in the 19th century and post-war state housing included terraced housing.
As recently as 2016, a BRANZ Housing Preferences Survey of 1,600 households found that people strongly favoured stand-alone houses.
Today, those attitudes are changing fast, with the attractions and convenience of an inner-city lifestyle now driving significant growth in multi-unit housing. Of the 47,331 new homes consented in the year ended September 2021, 21,886 (46%) were multi-unit homes, up from 29% just 5 years earlier. If the trend continues, Aotearoa New Zealand will soon be building more multi-unit homes than stand-alone homes. This is already true in Auckland, where multi-unit homes account for two-thirds of all new homes consented, and in the Wellington region.
Government pushing intensification
The move to intensification is supported by a big push from government. The 2020 National Policy Statement on Urban Development requires city councils in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch to enable greater height limits and free up the rules for higher-density housing in their urban centres, especially close to public transport.
These requirements were brought forward by a year with the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Bill announced in mid-October this year and supported by both the Labour Government and the National Party. In a giant step in support of medium-density housing (MDH), the Bill also requires the councils to take on board medium-density residential standards that will allow land-owners in those cities to build up to three homes of up to 3 storeys on most sites, covering up to 50% of the site, without the need for a resource consent.
The standards enable smaller private outlook spaces (between windows and other buildings), smaller outdoor living spaces such as balconies and reduced side yard setbacks to allow development closer to side boundaries. Where resource consents are required, more will proceed without the need for notification. The standards give landowners, developers and designers much more flexibility than before, and the number of MDH homes is expected to grow significantly as a result. A graph later in this feature showing the BRANZ forecast for townhouse consents gives a vivid picture of this.
Funding priorities for the government’s Housing/Infrastructure Acceleration Fund announced earlier this year include brownfield intensification and projects in locations of high housing demand with good access to public transport, jobs, education and amenities.
Multiple drivers for MDH
Even without government efforts, there are many drivers for MDH. Population growth around the country is one. The population of the Auckland region is projected to hit 2 million in little over a decade, up from around 1.7 million today. Wellington City is planning for an extra 50,000–80,000 residents in coming decades. The capital’s newly released spatial plan shows how this will be achieved, with certain parts of older inner suburbs, today home to villas and bungalows, marked for buildings up to 4 or 6 storeys. Smaller centres are growing too – Cambridge is likely to need an extra 2,300 houses in coming years and Carterton an extra 1,000. Both are making provision for MDH.
Other drivers include encouraging people to walk, cycle or use public transport to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from private car journeys. New Zealand’s green-house gas emissions from road transportation have doubled since 1990. Roughly half of all our carbon dioxide emissions come from transport, two-thirds of this from light vehicles, so cutting car journeys has the potential to make a useful contribution to reducing emissions overall.
At the launch of Future Proof, a 30-year plan for the Hamilton, Waipā and Waikato subregion, Bill Wasley, Chair of the Implementation Committee, said, ‘We can’t just keep allowing greenfield developments – our communities and our environment can’t afford it.’
The lack of affordable housing is a significant consideration. Per-square-metre construction costs are not lower for MDH or apartments than houses – they are frequently higher, and in some cases much higher – but because MDH or apartments typically have a smaller floor area than the average new house, costs per unit can be lower.
The social and community-friendly nature in well-designed MDH developments is also a drawcard. Articles later in this feature looking at community gardens, cohousing and build-to-rent all refer to the social benefits that residents can enjoy. Some communities such as the 21-unit Toiora High Street Cohousing in Dunedin even have their own Facebook pages.
Measures of good design
Ways of measuring good higher-density design aren’t hard to find.
One key area is energy efficiency that far exceeds Building Code minimums, making homes that are healthy and comfortable year-round while needing very little energy to operate. Many developments are achieving this with computer modelling at the design stage. Toiora in Dunedin achieves this by complying with Passive House requirements, a process that starts with very specific design requirements and ends with as-built certification. Kāinga Ora has begun work on a 3-storey, 18-home block in Māngere, Auckland, that is on track to achieve Passive House certification. The agency has a further seven Passive House projects (all 3-storey) in the design phase.
Achieving a good Homestar rating is another approach. New homes built to minimum Building Code requirements would typically get a Homestar rating of around 3–4, but homes in a growing number of higher-density developments are achieving a Homestar rating of 6, 7 or 8. Dwellings designed to this level will use considerably less energy and water than Code-minimum homes over their lifetimes.
When it comes to assessing how well designed a dwelling is in terms of its usability, safety and adaptability for people of different ages and physical abilities, a Lifemark star rating can help. Homes can be given a 3, 4 or 5-star rating. There are higher-density homes with 5-star Lifemark ratings.
Many aspects of good higher-density design are well illustrated in Hobsonville Point, the former defence base 20 minutes’ northwest of the Auckland CBD. When it is complete in 2024, it will house 11,000 residents in 4,500 homes at a higher density than traditional city suburbs. There are already amenities including cafés, restaurants and bars. There is lots of green space – 26 hectares of parks and reserves and 5 kilometres of coastal walkway. Over two-thirds of children walk or cycle to school, and over half of the residents take public transport, walk or cycle to work. No house is more than 800 m from a bus stop, and there is a ferry connecting to downtown Auckland.
Design and construction of the housing has been carefully thought through. Around 85% of material waste is recycled during construction. Kāinga Ora is overseeing the project and has a target of reusing/recycling over 80% of waste (excluding contaminated materials) in large development projects and in small to medium developments in Auckland. The homes are energy and water-efficient – they use 25% less electricity and 32% less water than the average Auckland home. Over a third of the homes built to date fall into the affordable bracket. Medium-density housing is common.
Surveys taken among the 6,250 people already living there show high levels of satisfaction.
Pipes and protests
For all the benefits of well-designed and constructed medium-density homes and communities, there are still some thorny issues to face:
- Progress in existing built locations or brownfield sites will be dictated by the capacity of existing infrastructure and services. If in-ground infrastructure cannot cope with a large number of extra households, that will effectively block big developments. Plans for increased population numbers also need to consider services such as schools. In Auckland, many schools are near their limits and would only be able to take more students if they get funding for new buildings.
- There will be more debates in coming years around intensification in inner-city suburbs – in Wellington, the city’s draft spatial plan received 2,897 submissions. Some think inner suburbs of mostly villas and bungalows should be protected for aesthetic and heritage values. Others see older homes as cold and unhealthy, better replaced by warmer higher-density homes housing more people. (On rare occasions, both sides can be winners – a heritage building in Whanganui recently gained resource consent for conversion into 18 apartments, retaining its historical street appeal.)
- While intensification can mean fewer daily car journeys and lower transport emissions, big challenges remain around carbon in new construction, in particular for apartments. BRANZ calculated the greenhouse gases that new homes could allowably emit while still moving towards our 2050 net-zero carbon goal. The results for MDH and stand-alone homes are similar – they exceed their climate targets several times over – but the figure is higher for apartments.
- New Zealand’s climate and the impacts of climate change mean that weathertightness always needs to be carefully considered. A 2019 BRANZ report on technical issues in MDH found weathertightness ranked as a top concern among building professionals. A separate survey of 200 building professionals found 64% had witnessed leaks in residential buildings less than 10 years old, including terraced houses/attached houses and apartments.
- Residential blocks converted from older buildings in earthquake risk areas have been hit hard by legal requirements to upgrade. A 2019 survey by residents’ association Inner City Wellington found apartment owners in earthquake-prone buildings facing an average cost of around $437,000 to upgrade. They face insurance hikes of up to 10 times or more as premiums adjust to better reflect risk.
Growing support for industry and clients
While issues around housing intensification remain, developers, architects and builders have a growing number of resources to call on.
The BRANZ publication Multi-storey light timber-framed buildings in New Zealand: Engineering design has had several thousand downloads. The website www.mdh.org.nz has a trove of resources. BRANZ carbon tools such as LCAQuick and the new tool CO2MPARE can be used with higher-density housing. Other research is under way in fire design, seismic resilience and weathertightness.
Central and local government bodies have published guidance in recent years, from Kāinga Ora’s 2021 guides around large-scale urban development to the Hastings residential intensification design guide 2020.
In the building controls field, NZS 3604:2011 Timber-framed buildings is being revised partly to better support MDH, with the scope extended to three full storeys. The updated standard is due for release in 2023.
A law update should increase the appeal of apartment life by reducing some of the drawbacks seen in the management and governance of apartment blocks. The Unit Titles (Strengthening Body Corporate Governance and Other Matters) Amendment Bill currently working its way through Parliament will amend the Unit Titles Act 2010. The Bill aims to improve information disclosure for prospective apartment buyers, strengthen governance arrangements, increase manager professionalism and ensure adequate planning and funding of long-term maintenance.
Māori and higher-density housing
THE MĀORI WORLD view means that Māori homebuyers often look for slightly different things than Pākehā, such as the separation of something tapu (sacred, prohibited) from something noa (profane, common).
James Berghan, a lecturer in urban design at the University of Otago, says a practical example is the location of a washing machine cupboard in an apartment. Putting this in a bathroom is generally acceptable. Locating this in the kitchen, with one person preparing food (tapu) while someone beside them is loading the machine with dirty clothes (noa) is not a satisfactory arrangement. (The health and safety concerns that are part of the concept behind tapu and noa are clear.) Having a lot of people living above you – and particularly above your head – is not good from a Māori perspective, and this has big implications for high-rise apartments. Some urban iwi are exploring ways to house more people on their land in a way that doesn’t conflict with this.
Being hospitable is important to Māori, yet it is a challenge in high-density housing with small floor areas. One solution already included in some new developments is having a shared common kitchen and living or dining space that owners can use occasionally when they want to host family and friends. Cohousing also offers considerable opportunities for higher-density housing compatible with Māori perspectives.
You can find more details in the Kite hau kāinga Māori housing design guide.
Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.