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Big ideas to tackle the New Zealand housing crisis


The term may be new, but the idea isn’t: tenants live together with shared communal spaces, but private rooms. Such an idea may bring to mind university dorms (and all the shenanigans therein), but it’s gaining popularity – especially among millennials – worldwide, including in New Zealand.

Mary Jaynes and Rory Sullivan – who met in a co-living situation themselves – are the pair behind Co-Live Queenstown. As Jaynes told Idealog, co-living is “attractive for Kiwis who still want to live in a shared living environment, but no longer want the hassles of traditional flatting.”

She goes on to explain the idea is popular not only because it offers a more affordable option for people who may have recently moved, or are only going to be around for a short time (such as people on working holidays) but because it offers an easy way to meet new people.

“We often have tenants come to us after being in town for a few months, struggling to find friends. They hear about our concept and are happy to wait a few weeks to a month just to live in one of our houses. We often hear tenants talking about their flatmates as their family.”

Other places in the world where co-living is growing include Chicago, New York and Berlin, where rents can range from about $1,400 per month to more than $2,500 per month.

Closing the generational divide

As kids move out, the homes parents live in can become emptier as they get older. Often, there’s a lot of space going unused.

In the Netherlands, organisations such as Humanitas have an intriguing solution for what to do with that space, make rents more affordable, and fight loneliness: have the young and old live together.

Young people who take part in the Humanitas programme live rent-free in exchange for 30 hours of volunteer work per month, during which they help their older flatmates in various activities, from teaching computer skills, having meals and meaningful conversations together, and more.

Since it started a few years ago, the programme has proven wildly popular in the Netherlands, where there’s a serious lack of affordable housing. Covered extensively by media and lauded by organisations like the World Economic Forum, similar programmes are now in cities like the Finnish capital of Helsinki and Exeter in England.

Aside from helping to solve the issue of unaffordable housing, especially for university students and those who might not have full-time careers, Humanitas CEO Gea Sijpkes points out the social benefits – which in turn have health benefits, as studies have shown happier people live longer.

“A smile a day for everyone, including the elderly, is what should be aimed for worldwide,” she explains.

Rent price brakes

One solution for the issue of rising rents that’s been tried in Germany is the Mietpreisbremse, or ‘rent price brake’. Essentially, it’s a law that is supposed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 10 percent of the local average.

Berlin became the first German state (it’s a state as well as a city) to adopt the policy in 2015.

Yet the policy isn’t working as intended: the German government has recently been looking at tightening the law, as landlords have simply been raising rents by just under the 10 percent threshold. Time, of course, will tell if tighter regulations – which are supposed to come into effect on January 1, 2019 – will be more effective.

Despite calls for regulation, among certain segments of the population, informal rental contracts are as popular as ever, no matter how dim a view government agencies may take.

In Dubai, buildings like the Princess Tower (the second-tallest residential building in the world) and its 97 stories above ground are home to literally thousands of young professionals from all over who can’t afford to stay in the city’s famously high-priced hotels and aren’t yet sure exactly how long they plan on staying.

To move into such a building, all it takes is a quick search on a website like Dubizzle, a call to the landlord, and voila: a no muss, no fuss place to unpack the suitcases and lay one’s head for a while.

Tiny houses

Just like the 1950s long past, so too should be the idea of having a bach and a Beamer that are only used for the occasional weekend or holiday getaway, or a house on a quarter acre with two cars in the garage and a white picket fence – or so say some advocates of tiny houses.

As the name suggests, tiny houses are just that: small. But perhaps not as small as one might assume, since they’re designed in such a way as to maximise efficiency and what space they have – and minimise the environmental impact.

A growing movement worldwide, tiny houses are also becoming more popular in New Zealand due in no small part to the fact they’re often more affordable than larger homes and have enjoyed considerable positive press from envy-inducing social media coverage.

As Prefab NZ chief executive Pamela Bell told Stuff: “There’s a serious housing affordability crisis and we’ve been buying homes bigger than we actually need.”

Prefab construction

Speaking of prefab, the idea might conjure images of overly large boxes from IKEA. But what about the South Island town of Twizel?

The truth is, there’s a lot more prefabricated – prefab for short – construction out there than we might think, like Twizel (most of which is prefabricated construction).

As Grant Bailey, principal landscape architect of architectural firm Isthmus, told Idealog, with greater economic demands than ever before to build buildings quickly but also more stringent codes and regulations that also must be met, building prefabricated buildings off-site is an ideal option.

Prefab NZ’s Bell expands on this. She says prefabricated construction can be an advantage because building in a factory, as opposed to on-site, can be safer. She adds New Zealand’s building codes mean there is no quality difference between structures built off or on-site.

All that would help with building more houses to meet demand, since according to a recent Branz report, productivity in the construction sector hasn’t improved in the past 20 years. Plus, it’s been reported Auckland alone needs to double the amount of new homes being built to meet the demand.

Tim Swanson, chief design officer of Chicago-based Skender (one of the top construction firms in the US), says prefab can be beautiful, too. Swanson – who toured New Zealand earlier this year as a featured speaker for the Design Experience Series – also says prefabricated construction isn’t just disrupting “traditional” building, but is being disrupted itself.

And that, he says, means there are exciting possibilities and implications for the future of architecture, urban design, and even the planet itself – and for affordable housing.

‘Fake’ wood

If there’s to be a prefab construction boom, there needs to be materials to build with. Often, especially in New Zealand, things are built with wood. But one problem with wood, of course, is it contributes to deforestation (and habit loss, and oxygen depletion, and a host of other issues), and there’s only a finite amount of it – plus, it’s expensive.

Enter solutions like Tallwood, co-founded by Prefab NZ board member Daiman Otto, which combines wood with cutting-edge technology. As Otto told Idealog: “New Zealand is certainly ready for change, and there are massive pressures on scaling up and doing so affordably.”

Wood alternatives have been big in Europe for at least the past couple of decades. And the number of alternatives is continuing to grow: take Ekoa, a flax-based “wood” developed when San Francisco-based Joe Luttwak wanted to make high-performance guitars out of something other than old-growth timber. As he told Fast Company: “We’re pursuing big customers and large material flows to really make an impact.”

And then there’s the work of University of Canterbury associate professor Dr David Leung: 3D printing live plant cells (a process known as bio-printing) to create synthetic wood. As he told Idealog: “Although challenging, there is potential to use live cells as an advanced manufacturing material in a yet-to-be invented, new industry. It is possible that other types of plant cells, such as the wood-forming cells of eucalyptus trees, could be used as bio-printing materials. Hence, it is a potential, socially acceptable opportunity for sustainable economic development derived from native forests.”

In other words, the day may be fast approaching when we’ll be able to grow pieces of plywood rather than chop down trees for them.

Thinking outside the box

Here are some even more unconventional ideas to solve the housing crisis that haven’t quite made it into the mainstream yet.

  • Living underwater or underground. As the human population rises and people are squeezed out of cities, some are predicting underground or underwater communities will become commonplace.
  • Floating homes on rivers and canals. Sea levels are rising with climate change, so why not build on top of the problem?
  • Seasteading. Another solution could be to follow in the footsteps of controversial New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel and build communities on artificial islands far out at sea.
  • Extremely tall housing structures. Architects have proposed building housing up into the clouds on top of pre-existing buildings so overall city design won’t be harmed.
  • Relocating to Mars. Flights into space are nearing possibility, and initiatives to live and build housing on other planets will soon follow. Let’s just hope we don’t make the same urban design mistakes we made on Earth.

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