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Future dense: Why density is a neccessity

How hard is it to deliver good multi-unit architecture? It’s tough, but certainly not impossible, if the conditions are right. That’s one takeaway from in:situ 2017, the New Zealand Institute of Architects biennial conference that saw 11 gifted architects head to New Zealand to share with local audiences some of the processes into how they do what they do. Another takeaway: New Zealand, and more specifically, Auckland, is not alone in its problems with housing availability and affordability. And the experiences of two architects, Los Angeles-based Babara Bestor and Alison Brooks from London should have particular currency with New Zealand architects.

Spot the density

Clients of Los Angeles architect Barbara Bestor include headphone company Beats by Dre, for which she just designed a, shall we say, exuberant and colourful HQ in Culver City. For one of Beats’ founders she’s also reworking a classic example of mid-century futuristic modernism, Silvertop by John Lautner. Keeping with the musical theme, she’s also just finished the Silver Lake Conservatory of Music, a non-profit organisation founded by Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ bassist Flea and other assorted musos. Her recent residential work, Blackbirds, an enclave of 18 houses (that took the place of five) in the once-bohemian hills of Echo Park is especially interesting in this part of the world because of the application of what Bestor describes as “stealth density”.

Bestor’s architecture combines several dwellings into a single house-shaped form, so within what looks like an individual house there might be two dwellings, or three dwellings within what appears to be two houses. It’s a canny design technique that conceals the overall density of the neighbourhood (something similar might go some way to appeasing the pockets of resistance to density that you find on Auckland’s eastern front; although, those opinions are perhaps less important given the recent High Court ruling that the Council’s changes to the Draft Unitary Plan were “in scope”).

As an architect Bestor has long been interested in ways of disguising architectural forms. Back in 2011 she designed a Disco Silencio!” (Silent Disco), “a plywood polyhedron of hedonism” with an anamorphic surface inspired by the “surface deception” of World War One’s Razzle Dazzle ships, which used crazy graphics to disguise their shape and form. Blackbirds seems to be a more practical application of those ideas. The houses are clad in either black or white metal; they are like an abstracted form of this part of LA’s craftsman cabins. They are designed to fit in, but are not a literal quotation of any existing housing stock.

Blackbirds, infill housing built under LA’s Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance, which allows developers to build several detached homes on a single parcel of land, was not an easy job. At in:situ, Bestor said she essentially worked for free – for two years, although payment differences were eventually resolved and she remains on good terms with the developer. “Trying to get a developer to pay for something that is hard to do is quite unlikely,” she said by way of explanation. Like Auckland, LA has a big problem with housing affordability. Blackbirds wasn’t specifically designed to be affordable, but nor was it intended as luxury stock. In the end, market rates plus good design resulted in a price hike beyond expectations.

As a footnote to this chapter, the issue of carparking is a continual thorn for designers of multi-unit housing. Incorporating ground-floor garages into a house is a killer of community vibe. At Blackbirds, Bestor exploited a gap in the city’s ordinances that allowed non-covered parking. She created a “living street” – a shared central courtyard with allowances for landscape, play and parking. One of the most gratifying experiences, she says of the finished project, was being invited to a dinner hosted by a number of the community’s residents in this shared space.

Barbara Bestor’s Blackbirds in Los Angeles

Let it be

There were a number of interesting speakers at in:situ, including Sir David Adjaye, whose National Museum of African American Culture and History opened late last year on Washington DC’s Mall (the last time something good happened in Washington, as one wag put it). But one of the most impressive was Alison Brooks, a British-based, Canadian-born architect whose architecture is about “ideals first, then ideas”, a noble sentiment that is especially borne out in her residential work.

Brooks’ architectural pedigree is unequivocally excellent. Not only is she the only British architect to win all three of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious architecture awards, the Stirling Prize, Manser Medal and Stephen Lawrence Prize, she’s also on a list of top 26 female architects of all time. 90 percent of her work comes through competitions, and her housing commission for Newhall in Harlow, a post-war new town built to ease London’s crowdedness, was also won through a contest of ideas.

Newhall ‘Be’ (the ‘be’ apparently stands for ‘just be’ or ‘the place to be’), in Harlow, Essex, “challenged all the conventions of suburban housing”, Brooks said. “We tried to make homes that have some joy, that feel a bit like you are on holiday.”

You might feel like you’re on holiday, but Brooks had another idea too: these homes could also be workplaces, with small offices combined within first floor plans to create more options for residents and to busy up the neighbourhood.

At Newhall, Brooks master-planned 84 dwellings – 76 would have met density requirements, but the belt was cinched tighter, halving garden sizes and adding roof terraces in compensation. That sounds miserly, but think about it this way: those extra eight houses paid for full-height windows, dedicated studies and convertible roof spaces. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Less is more only when more is too much”. In this case, a bit more was more than enough for a better outcome for all. Also, the development’s communal green spaces, at about 40 percent of the total area spaces, are generous.

At Newhall Be, apartment buildings anchor the corners while villas, courtyard houses and terraced houses fall in an intricate lattice across the site. Lattice voids are outdoor spaces, and the arrangement of the buildings, which have sheared off or chamfered upper levels, is carefully managed to maximise light into these areas. Mass house builders are fond of repetition and the economies they allow in construction, and in New Zealand that often results in swathes of banal beige buildings in equally beige suburbs. At Newhall, Brooks designed the estate using prefabricated timber cassettes above a beam-and-block ground floor. These sheared off forms, dressed in black timber and tiles, cut a sharp silhouette against the skyline. And, unbelievably, completely watertight houses were erected in two days (two days!).

At in:situ, Brooks said she was interested in “creating a context that would create a more uplifting or ennobling way of life… more generous than what came before, with more craft and more character than what was done previously.” A local version of this – generously high ceilings and big windows, and the potential for generational expansion into ceiling spaces or for working from home – would also be a winner here. Did I mention the two days bit? That’s progress.

Corners, cars and consent

Are the odds stacked against you if you want to do good mid-density projects in New Zealand? Architect Gerald Parsonson, who didn’t speak at in:situ, but last year won every New Zealand architecture award available to him for Zavos Corner, a Mount Victoria, Wellington collection of eight rental apartments on a 564 square metre site, would give a vehement yes.

Zavos Corner is carefully designed around a series of gabled frames that refer back to the traditional villas that predominate in the neighbourhood. The apartments’ large windows allow access to light and as much sun as can be found in Wellington (on a good day) and the ground plane is arranged around small gardens and courtyards. What makes this all the more special is that it is rental housing, and since when do renters get any attention lavished upon them? All of this of course begs the question why isn’t there more of this subtle density in New Zealand cities? The short answer: it was a nightmare to get through consent planning. 

At the start, all the architectural stars were in alignment. There was a good client, enough money. The client’s family had owned the corner site for decades. They were looking to do a legacy project and were willing to go further to ensure a good result. The existing building on site was a large, bastardised villa, clad in asbestos with an accretion of lean-tos. But there was a tough set of design guidelines for the area. At the time, says Parsonson, different areas in Wellington were being targeted for densification, but Mount Victoria wasn’t really one of them.

Parsonson’s first crack at the design followed the design guide, which called for any new materials to match the rusticated weatherboard and corner boxing of existing houses in the area, set out proportions for windows, et cetera.

“I did a few sketches around that. Angelos [the client] disagrees with me, but I recall him saying, ‘Gerald, it’s boring’. I said that if we’re going to do something different, or more interesting, a little more of a contemporary cut on the feel of the local area, then we’ll be in for a bit more of a fight. And we were.”

Angelos was also up for greater density, which required some thinking about carparking, Parsonson says.

“In fact, the evolution of the project is wrapped up in carparking. The initial scheme was for five units. They were your typical townhouse, where you drive onto site and the whole ground plane is an asphalt carpark with some planting at the edges and a sea of garage doors. What you normally see. Angelos said to us, ‘Look, how can I fit more units on there? Five doesn’t seem very much.’carparking. The initial scheme was for five units. They were your typical townhouse, where you drive onto site and the whole ground plane is an asphalt carpark with some planting at the edges and a sea of garage doors. What you normally see. Angelos said to us, ‘Look, how can I fit more units on there? Five doesn’t seem very much.’

“It actually was quite a bit,” Parsonson says, “because the site was only 500 square metres. So we said, ‘If we put the carparking under ground and you spend another million dollars, because of all the excavation, retaining, and mucking around, then we can get you an extra three units.’ Most developers wouldn’t do that, but Angelos decided to, and what it did was free up the whole ground plane for outdoor spaces for the ground floor apartments.”

Unfortunately, the next six to twelve months were spent trying to convince the planner not to go to a limited notified hearing, which would have opened the development up to a bunch of neighbours, a commissioner, a hearing and, of course, great expense. “In the end it ended up being the full hearing with a commissioner, which cost a staggeringly large amount. The commissioner weighed up the reports by the urban designer and the planner with the neighbours and said, ‘I think this should go ahead, but how about you lower your clock tower by half a metre’.”

“It’s always bugged me because it’s too short – it would have been better another half a metre higher.”

Progressive architects believe their cities and their inhabitants deserve beautiful, well-built and well-sized homes and Parsonson points to a new development model in Australia that epitomises this philosophy.

The Nightingale model is a response to the Australian housing affordability crisis. The lucky country unfortunately needs 6.5 million new dwellings in the next 35 years to deal with projected population growth from 22 to 36 million by 2050.

The people behind Nightingale – a number of architects, a solicitor, human rights advocate and social investment innovator – have developed a triple bottom line model that “delivers homes that are environmentally, socially and financially sustainable.” It’s a response to a status quo that favours financial return over sustainability and liveability, and is based in the idea that if you reduce the need for development profits you can improve the other two categories and provide housing that is “fairly and transparently priced, designed for people, community and the environment”.

The best way to reduce the need for development profits is, of course, to remove the traditional developer from the equation. The financial model for a Nightingale development – and there are currently four underway in Melbourne – limits project partner profits to 15 percent. It also removes realtors from the programme. Like Zavos Corner, carparking, or lack thereof, is one of the most contentious planning issues of these projects. Nightingale 2, a proposed five-storey apartment building, will house three retail tenancies and 20 apartments. It’s sited next to a railway station and will have two to three bicycle parks per apartment instead of car parking.carparking, or lack thereof, is one of the most contentious planning issues of these projects. Nightingale 2, a proposed five-storey apartment building, will house three retail tenancies and 20 apartments. It’s sited next to a railway station and will have two to three bicycle parks per apartment instead of car parking.

Parsonson believes the design quality of multi-unit developments in New Zealand cities is incredibly variable and that in the case of Zavos Corner, with all signs pointing towards an excellent development that would be a real asset for the area, it would be helpful if planners could identify projects that add urban value to the city. Perhaps Zavos Corner is the mould-breaking project? Parsonson says that when he heard that the planners and commissioner from the hearing were doing a tour of multi-unit projects he invited them over.

“They said it was the best project they had seen and to their credit asked how the process went. We felt that for eight dwellings the combined cost for the resource consent process was disproportionately high, and the result of it added very little value to the project or neighbourhood. It seemed its purpose was to educate the planner, allow him to tick boxes and satisfy council risk aversion. Sadly it is enough to put many clients or developers off from proceeding with a good project.”

Not Parsonson though, he’s up for more. And as density increasingly becomes a necessity in this country, more local architects will have to be, too.

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