The cool homes solving our housing crisis

Coming as news to absolutely no one: New Zealanders have a housing problem. Skyrocketing prices coupled with a lack of supply and quality; we need more, better houses — and fast. Luckily, as Lynda Brendish found, there are some innovative solutions out there.

Housing reports lately have been gloomy – for buyers at least. Kiwi house prices have risen 24% since 2008 as purchasers compete for a near-stagnant supply. Population growth in Auckland and earthquakes knocking out 10,000-20,000 dwellings in Christchurch mean these cities face the highest price increases (up 40% and 33% respectively) and the widest supply and demand gaps.

Ree Anderson, Auckland Council’s Housing Project Director estimates the city needs around 10,000-13,000 new homes per year to keep pace with growth, but just 6,000 are being built. Anyway, median prices in the $600,000s means they’re out of reach for many.

And cutting corners in the past mean lots of homes are unhealthy, energy-inefficient and expensive to maintain. 

“Part of it is a mindset of harden up and put on another jersey,” says Nick Collins, chief executive at building research non-profit Beacon Pathway. “We’re a young nation and we’ve barely moved on from a pioneering mindset. We’ve always tended to build houses quickly and not be concerned about longevity of housing stock.” 

Collins estimates the country has 60-70% of the housing it will need by 2030, and too much was built without thought to sustainability, quality of life or the needs of an aging population.  

All this is a challenge – especially if you happen to be in the market for a house. But it’s also an opportunity, to think differently about where and how we live. Houses in the future need to be smaller, more efficient, and less likely to fall down. Many will be kitset, assembled onsite, saving time and money.

We examined the trends and found small, cheap and strong doesn't necessarily need to mean boring.

Trend one: Prefabs and Pods

From container homes to modular design, pre-fabrication is cutting build times and costs. And it doesn't have to look ugly.

Christchurch's Home Innovation Village showcases prefabs with a designer twist

We say “prefab”, you say “horrible memories of high school”. Which is why those in the industry these days prefer terms like “offsite manufacture” or “modular”. 

A report published earlier this year suggests prefab houses cost on average $47,000 less to build than their built-on-site equivalent, and can cut as much as 50% off construction time. They also produce less waste (because the houses are designed using standard sizes for building materials) and result in a higher quality product. 

What prefab doesn’t mean, says PrefabNZ chief executive Pamela Bell, is cookie cutter housing. 

The Home Innovation Village (Hive) in Canterbury is currently showing off a range of affordable, sustainable, architecturally designed prefab homes – and just had its run extended right through to 2016. 

Meanwhile, upending prefab stereotypes altogether are the increasingly hip homes made from shipping containers. Think Lego construction in endless variations. 

In Christchurch, for example, Ediface Building has begun construction on its container worker housing Pods in Parlane St. 

Each of the 15 self-contained units has a kitchenette, shower and Playstation as standard, though they are pretty small (think living in half a squash court stretched lengthwise). 

But because the Pods (complete with wiring, piping and insulation) are put together in the Edifice yard, while the work on the foundations and drainage is going in at the Parlane St site, construction time is only four months and the units will cost about $55,000 to buy or $300 a week to rent. 

Once they aren’t needed in the central city any more, the plan is for investors to just pick them up and move them elsewhere (teenage sleepout, farm worker accommodation, etc).

Edifice boss Rob Strickland is planning more modular housing construction projects once the Pods are complete, and not just with housing containers.

He says the biggest hurdle to offsite building is a psychological one (“New Zealanders just can’t get their head around it”) but says modular construction is a chance to knock six weeks off an average 18-20-week house build timeframe – and that makes it a no-brainer in the current market.

Meanwhile, Mount Maunganui’s Cubular Container Buildings says its container home packages can reduce build times to 10 weeks from go to whoa. 

And with only a week onsite, lengthy weather delays that can plague traditional construction can be almost entirely avoided.

​Trend two: Smart and small

Or, why "compact" doesn't always have to mean titchy, cramped and dark.

Creative Arch won James Hardie's Smarter Small Home design competition in 2013

Though household sizes have been decreasing, Kiwi homes have been getting steadily bigger since the 1950s. Then, the average new home was 117 sqm; in 2010 it was 205 sqm – shock horror that’s actually bigger than the average new home in super-size-me America the same year. 

This trend needs to go in the other direction, particularly in Auckland, says Opus Architecture national manager Mark Burke-Damaschke. A growing population and rising land costs mean we’ll need to find innovative uses for smaller sites – like infill or repurposed ‘brownfield’ sites – as well as looking to flexible and smaller design solutions. 

International research shows smaller houses also tend to be more energy efficient and cheaper to maintain. 

Typical of the downsized direction are the Smarter Small Homes – two-storey, four-bedroom homes with a 65 sqm footprint and a $300,000-$350,000 price tag, designed by Auckland architectural design company Creative Arch

Managing director Mark McLeay wanted affordable, environmentally-friendly housing with architectural merit, and his designs are being used in developments in Christchurch, Auckland and Napier. He’s also in discussion with Housing New Zealand. 

Meanwhile, architectural design company Box Living is using modernist influences and modular structure to design smaller houses.

Founder Dan Heyworth says often “big” is used as an alternative to “good” in house design. “You don’t have to design big to get a feeling of space. We take ideas from the pared-back style of the Japanese, for example. It’s about getting rid of wasted space.”

The company recently built a three bedroom, two bathroom house with a study on a 130sqm footprint. It is now working on a six-home mews development in the centre of Nelson. 

He says many newer immigrants from Europe or Asia are used to living in apartments, semi-detached or terrace-style houses and so often aren’t looking for a traditional Kiwi house-with-garden approach.

Trend three: Built to last

Earthquake rules have seen innovative solutions for extreme conditions.

Earthquake-proofing: The land for this Christchurch house is zoned TC2, so needed a stiffened raft foundation and piling to the first gravel layer. It has a light timber frame clad with vertical cedar boards and earthquake-resilient LVL wall panels. Photo by Jet Productions

With earthquake resistance uncomfortably top-of-mind for many Kiwis, and more Cyclone Ita-like weather predicted over the long-term, Mark Burke-Damaschke, Opus Architecture’s national manager, says an increased focus on resilience to natural disasters is key for developers. That includes designing to reduce the time and cost of repairs after extreme events. 

Opus was the architect behind the Carterton Events Centre, the first building outside a research environment to use the University of Canterbury’s recently-developed Pres-Lam technology, which combines laminated veneer lumber (LVL) with post-tensioned steel construction. Pres-Lam is designed to be earthquake and extreme weather resistant, lightweight, affordable, quick to build and with a low carbon footprint to boot. 

Burke-Damaschke says earthquake-safe technologies, including base isolation (a sort of car suspension for buildings) and lightweight walls (which don’t build up as much momentum when they shake, so don’t move as fast or as far) tend to take longer to be introduced into the residential sector, where builders, customers and regulators have historically been wary of a non-traditional approach.

Often the resilient parts of the design have to be hidden to make a house look as “normal” as possible.

“Most Cantabrian clients don’t want their residences to remind them of the need for earthquake resilience.”

Meanwhile, Opus is working with engineers and developers with experience in post-earthquake Japan and San Francisco – hoping to gain insights from their experiences. This includes researching and testing innovative approaches to foundation design and the inclusion of seismic sheer construction, base isolation and pre-fabricated modules which incorporate seismic resilience. 

The main thing to avoid, says Christchurch architect Dean Buckeridge, is heavyweight cladding, like brick or stone veneer – particularly if it’s attached to a flexible sub-structure like timber framing.

“It’s obvious; anything not properly tied into the building's structure has the potential to break free.”