Time for a simpler approach

This Issue This is a part of the Affordability feature

By - , Build 150

Do consumers really need tiled bathrooms, fancy façades and high-end tapware in their entry-level homes? That’s what developers are providing and yet they drive up costs at a time when affordability is a major issue.

WITH DEMAND for housing currently exceeding supply in some areas of the country, the residential construction industry is under pressure to deliver new dwellings to help reduce the shortage.

Demand for affordable homes

A lot of this demand is for affordable housing, particularly in Auckland where median house prices are at an all-time high and home ownership is currently well beyond the reach of many. Unfortunately, however, several factors mean developers are struggling to provide truly affordable new housing.

Look beyond the issues associated with planning, land availability and development, including the associated compliance and infrastructure costs that the industry is currently grappling with. Then you will see an opportunity for developers to assess the housing product they are providing.

The design and specification of many new affordable homes is influenced by several factors, many of which appear to have taken the consumer out of the equation.

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Development requirements push up costs

Design controls in new developments, put in place and administered by the master developer and their representatives, appear to mostly focus on urban planning outcomes and the strength of the architecture.

These controls are there to ensure liveable outcomes, particularly with increased density developments, and to make good architecture available to all.

However, often the requirements result in new house designs that are beyond the levels of true affordability. Designs may have to be more complex than necessary to meet streetscape and density requirements and may have to incorporate exterior cladding materials considered high end. For example, the use of masonry veneer, aluminium louvres, laser-cut metal façade panels and stained cedar cladding on entry-level housing is in conflict with reducing build costs to facilitate affordability.

While the various professions driving these initiatives may celebrate the outcome, many consumers are unable to afford the end product or are committing to mortgages that are a challenge to service.

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Priorities at odds with reducing costs

Where high-end materials are required, they increase not only component costs and build time but sometimes also add to the dwelling’s whole-of-life costs with increased maintenance demands and costs. An example is the need to more regularly restain cedar cladding compared to the maintenance of other claddings.

To reduce build costs, floor areas are shrinking so houses provide minimal but acceptable amenity. Garages and carports are being dispensed with in favour of on-street parking.

Meanwhile, developers are offering complex designs with levels of interior finish and specification that again would be considered by many as high end.

The inclusion of fully tiled bathrooms (requiring waterproofing of the substrate and skilled installation) with glass shower screens. Level 5 paint finishes, artificial stone bench tops, and imported tapware seem out of sync with reducing build costs.

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Are expectations higher now?

A homebuilder matching or bettering the product specification of their competitors in the same development often drives this. However, it is also influenced by the industry, which has gradually increased the standard of finish and specification of entry-level housing in the belief that it is what consumers want.

Apart from the associated increase in build time and cost, this has also led to the need for more skilled tradespeople in an industry where demand is already oversubscribed.

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A simpler, more affordable choice

So where to from here? Perhaps it’s time that the industry consulted with the consumer more effectively. Time to ask what standard of design, specification and finish they would be happy to accept in order to build a home that was truly affordable.

It is likely that this would result in a housing product that was simpler in form and specification while at the same time architecturally responsible, well built and well finished. All of this can be achieved at a much lower build cost than the majority of the current offering.

These homes would still be Building Code compliant, pleasing to the eye and of a standard attractive to entry-level home seekers. Plus, they could be easier to build and maintain internally and externally. They would definitely be more affordable. It seems a logical outcome.

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Challenge for developers and homebuilders

The challenge then would be to get land developers to put in place development controls that facilitated good design without the need for an ever-increasing pursuit of architectural innovation.

It would also need homebuilders to agree a common approach to the minimum standard of affordable housing that new homeowners are happy to accept.

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