Colouring in Auckland

Auckland’s sprawling, low density suburbs could do with an injection of life and colour. It could be coming our way, courtesy of one housing shortage, if my fellow developers take up the challenge I’m issuing here.

There’s ‘out’ and there’s ‘up’ and then there’s ‘densify’. We’re going to need a bit of everything to have any hope of supply meeting demand in Auckland. The option which presents the most untapped potential, best suits the Kiwi lifestyle and is most likely to deliver the thriving, highly liveable city we all desire is, in my view, is densify. My word, and it hasn’t made it into the dictionary yet, but it provides a useful handle for an approach to development which takes every opportunity to create medium density housing on underutilised land in existing low density neighbourhoods.

I’m not talking about adding a second dwelling in the back yard, but activating the ‘dead zones’ in our suburbs by adding houses, and therefore life. Colouring in the colourless spots on our map, if you like. Auckland has plenty of these dead zones – useful sized pockets of land which are often remnants of commercial or government interests that have become outmoded.

The benefits of increasing the density of existing suburbs have been well researched and it’s clear that higher density offers economic, social and environmental benefits. Compact societies are positively correlated with diversity, social unity and cultural growth. Increasing density makes economic sense because infrastructure becomes more cost-effective per capita. Adding more people to a low density area sets off a ripple effect of advantageous changes ­– crime rates fall due to greater passive surveillance, more students enrol in the local school, more small businesses are attracted to the area, leading to more jobs and the kind of neighbourhood where you can walk to your favourite local bistro.

Medium density affordable housing in Seattle, USA.

However, few neighbourhoods will benefit from an increase in density alone. The programme must also tackle quality design and building, mixed land use, accessibility to employment hubs (such as the CBD) and connectivity within the community. In short, increases in density must be offset by increases in amenity to be beneficial.

While Auckland’s housing shortage has deepened into a ‘crisis’ and debate has raged I have had the privilege to be heavily involved in a government-led initiative to show Auckland how medium density can be done well in a suburban context. AVJennings was selected by Hobsonville Land Company (HLC) – a subsidiary of Housing New Zealand – as the master developer of the first precinct in what was to be, back in 2007, a 3,000 home township. The purpose of the development was to provide much needed new homes on a piece of under utilised land (the decommissioned Hobsonville Point airbase) in Auckland’s Northwest, an area which both local and central government had earmarked for population growth and therefore infrastructure investment.

A decommissioned Defence base has become a thriving community. Hobsonville Point will be home to 11,000 Aucklanders.

As an Australian company untested in the New Zealand market, we needed to convince HLC we could deliver infrastructure, amenity and homes at the scale and pace they desired. We brought with us five top New Zealand building companies who we knew, together, could manage the output at the quality the brief demanded. This collaboration has continued and has been a key part of Hobsonville Point’s success.

We started building and selling standalone homes off the plan in the pit of the global financial crisis. My predecessor vividly recalls trying to convince our Builder Partners to take on a terraced housing typology with a courtyard that was a popular plan for us in Australia. All the builders argued vehemently that the plan wouldn’t sell in New Zealand; that Kiwis would not buy terraces, especially not in the suburbs. At the time the average section size in Auckland was over 600m2. The rapid sale of the eight homes in that first block of terraces allowed us to convince other builders that Aucklanders would indeed buy terraced housing, if – and this is the big qualifier – they were in a good area with a high level of amenity. Today 80% of the homes sold at Hobsonville Point are terraces. The average land size for a terrace is 190m2.

Squadron Lane at Hobsonville Point, designed by Stevens Lawson architects for Jalcon Homes, is a mix of standalone and terraced housing.

This is a lot closer to the lot size in some of our most loved areas such as Freemans Bay and Ponsonby. We used to build medium density once. We got out of the habit. We need to get back into it if our children are to have any hope of home ownership.

Medium density in Freemans Bay. Hobsonville Point's urban designers have studied city fringe suburbs to inform the master plan.

We used to build apartment buildings in the suburbs too, right up until the 1970s. You can see examples around Mt Eden and on the Mission Bay and Kohimarama waterfront. In 2013 we released our first large tranche of apartments in Buckley A, 60 units in a five-storey complex called Brickworks. All of the apartments sold off the plans. Brickworks’ success proved to our builders that people would buy the next rung up on the density ladder at Hobsonville Point.

Shangri-La in Gladstone Road, Parnell is typical of the type of low-rise, medium density apartments Auckland built between 1930 and 1970.

The quality of the amenity surrounding the apartments and the price point made them an ‘easy sell’ but they also tapped into a growing need. The average New Zealand household is getting smaller. We’re not far off the point where half of all households are made up of two or less people. At the same time we’re seeing a worldwide trend for choosing a more minimalist lifestyle that prioritises experiences over possessions, as evidenced by the popularity of blogs such as lifeedited.com and the interest by the masses in the fringe ‘tiny house’ movement.

You’ve probably heard that we Kiwis like big houses. We have the second largest homes in the world at an average of over 200m2. We currently take up the same amount of space per person as the average home in the UK (80m2). But the past does not predict the future. A standalone home on a large site is no longer what many Aucklanders would choose, even if they could afford it.

Research conducted by HLC in 2014 shows that Aucklanders rate land size as the least most important out of a list of 12 factors when shopping for a new home. Anecdotally our builder partners hear from all age groups that they don’t want lawns to mow. They don’t even want to pay someone else to mow for them. They want simplicity and a park a short walk away.

Over the last eight years the total number of homes planned for Hobsonville Point has edged up as the pressure on Auckland’s housing market has grown alongside its residents’ willingness to embrace medium density typologies. The township will eventually be home to 11,000 people in 5,000 dwellings.

AVJennings is now underway developing our third precinct at Hobsonville Point – the 650- dwelling Buckley B neighbourhood. Buckley B has me very excited.

Over the last year Hobsonville Point has delivered a home a day to the market. This is the biggest and fastest residential development in New Zealand by far. In developing Buckley B, HLC has asked us to lift our pace further, with the goal of achieving two homes completed a day (without any drop in quality). At the same time we have been assigned the task of delivering 30% – up from 20% in previous precincts – of the homes in Buckley B to first home buyers at or below a price cap of $550,000, and 80% of all homes in Buckley B below the Auckland median house price.

In order to achieve these outcomes we need to innovate to both increase speed and contain prices. Working with our Builder Partners we have developed several tactics to do this. Here are four of them:

PRE-APPROVED HOUSE DESIGNS

For the first time at Hobsonville Point AVJennings Builder Partners will build homes with different facades but the same floor plans. Every home at Hobsonville Point must be approved by the Design Review Panel (DRP) as there are numerous requirements around quality and sustainability that fall outside Council planning rules and the Building Code. Working with the DRP we have created a set of design guidelines for where and how to locate these homes. The guidelines provide suggestions for solar orientation and allowable facade combinations within a street. The floor plans and facade options can be pre-approved by the Panel, independent of specific lots, cutting down the time involved in the consenting process.

SMALLER CIVIL WORKS

By splitting civil works into smaller stages we’ve been able to minimise the wait time and holding costs for land release to our Builder Partners. This also allows civil works and house construction to happen simultaneously within a development stage.

INCREASED PREFABRICATION

We are working hard with Builder Partners to increase the level of prefabrication used in the homes in Buckley B, with a goal of 20% of each home being prefabricated. Prefab components include kitchens, bathrooms, laundry, storage and garaging.

NEW TYPOLOGIES

AVJennings has worked with Isthmus Group to develop four new typologies for Buckley B, each of which find construction efficiencies which bring cost savings we can pass on to the homebuyer.

For example one of the typologies has a sloping roof in a single plane. This allows for a double storey home on the street frontage at a lower cost than traditional designs. Solar access is maximised at the rear by the lowering roof, without overshadowing the neighbour. The home can be built as a standalone or attached typology. Repetition creates cost efficiencies.

Another typology, the Flip Flop Duplex, has been designed to maximise space and amenity in areas where lanes are part of the superlot layout.

The Four Square is a small apartment typology with two apartments downstairs and two walk-up apartments on the second story. It is dead simple to construct relative to most apartment buildings, offers higher yield per land area and allows for efficient use of corner sites.

Apartments will form a big part of Buckley B’s offer to the market. The precinct straddles the spine road where higher density is encouraged in Hobsonville Point’s masterplan. A case in point is Ockham Residential’s Bernoulli Gardens development, which comprises 116 apartments in six buildings. Ockham describe the apartments as ‘character flats’ and they are highly reminiscent of those 1930s and 40s apartments that Aucklanders have a soft spot for. Their curving brick facades reference the streamlined moderne style of the era. Designed to a human scale (they’re only three storeys) and arranged gracefully around landscaped gardens, they are bound to push some nostalgia buttons.

Bernoulli Gardens by Ockham Residential.

Six buildings incorporate 116 character flats.

CEO, Helen O’Sullivan describes this product segment as the “missing middle”. Between standalone homes and high-rise apartment blocks, sits a sweet spot where the product meets Auckland’s need to densify but can be delivered at a moderate price because the buildings don’t require capital expenditure on high-rise infrastructure, such as lifts and mechanical ventilation. O’Sullivan also makes the point that only a small suite of construction companies in Auckland are able to deliver an apartment high-rise, and they are very busy. Scale down to three storeys and Ockham Residential has a range of builders to choose from.

Bernoulli Gardens is one of a range of excellent responses we’ve had from our builder and developer partners to the challenges of meeting HLC’s yield (density) and pricing requirements within Buckley B. The precinct provides a microcosm of the challenges facing Auckland as a whole. Density must increase and prices must be contained to create the kind of city we want our kids to inherit. At the same time we need to keep our eye on quality and build for longevity and social and environmental sustainability.

I challenge my fellow developers to provide the highest density they can achieve on any given piece of land (without sacrificing quality) and to channel a good proportion of the extra revenue gained from that density back into higher amenity for the residents of their development. Amenity and proximity – or at least good transport connections – to the city beats house and land size hands down on Aucklanders list of must haves. Good quality medium density housing in a high amenity neighbourhood sells. You win and so does Auckland.

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