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Density Delusions

One of the saddest and most frustrating parts of the Unitary Plan deliberations being held at the moment is the misinformation about density controls and their effects. Phrases such as “unlimited density” create images of high-rise apartment buildings in suburban areas or tiny “chicken coop” sausage flats squeezed onto small suburban sites.

Both of which are simply not possible. Not because some fluffy urban design assessment criteria will stop such things – but because of hard rules like maximums height limits, maximums site coverage controls, minimum dwelling sizes, private open space requirements and more. If we take a look at the residential rules of the Unitary Plan from prior to the Councillors’ changes throughout last week and yesterday (I have been asking the council for a list of all of the changes agreed to but they are ignoring my requests) we find out that a so-called unlimited density development in the different parts of the Mixed Housing zone would have the following development controls applied (as well as requiring a resource consent to even apply to build more than four units and requiring a large site to start with!)

  • A building height limit of 8 metres
  • Height in relation to boundary rules requiring heights of no more than 3m plus 1m for every metre back from the boundary the part of the building is located.
  • Yard controls, including a (stupid in my opinion) front yard requirement of 4m.
  • A maximum impervious area control of 60 per cent (i.e. building or paving can’t exceed 60% of the site).
  • A maximum building coverage of 40% for sites 400m² or more or 50% for sites less than 400m².
  • A requirement to landscape at least 30% of a site, including covering at least 10% of the site in plants or shrubs (including a further requirement for at least one large tree!)
  • Outlook spaces of at least 6m by 4m from each main living room, from the principal bedroom of at least 3m by 3m and from other rooms of at least 1m by 1m.
  • Building separation requirements, including a requirement for separation from main living rooms of 15m.
  • At outdoor living space of at least 40 square metres, including dimension requirements.
  • Minimum amounts of glazing in the main living area, bedrooms and out to the street.
  • Maximum garage size and impact on the front façade including additional set back controls.
  • Maximum building length restrictions.
  • Minimum dwelling size requirements of at least 40 square metres for studios and 45 square metres for one bedroom apartments.
  • Minimum dimension requirements for living rooms and even bedrooms.

Most of these rules have some logic and good intentions sitting behind them and are an attempt to ensure that development is of a sufficient quality. But, importantly, all the rules will limit the development density which can occur on a site – at least indirectly. What all these controls really do (aside from the minimum dwelling size and to a lesser extent the minimum dimension requirements) is influence the bulk, location, scale and layout of development – how the development will be perceived from the outside world. What density controls do, over and above these other controls, is basically determine how a building envelop is ‘sliced and diced’ into different dwellings.

Density controls have been pretty common throughout Auckland’s planning documents for the past few decades – with the result being this:

What stands out in the image above is the monotony of this urban form. Each site is roughly the same size, each dwelling takes up roughly the same amount of land on the site, each place is basically the same.

  • Large houses on 400-500 square metre sites.
  • None of them with particularly large backyards.
  • No variety of building types.

Importantly, these areas also lack the provision of any affordable housing – because the only thing being built are huge standalone houses. And the reason why the only things being built are huge standalone houses is because the density controls mean a minimum amount of land needs to be set aside for each dwelling, leading to effectively a minimum size of house in order for the developer to make a profit and therefore a minimum sale price that’s often well north of $500,000.

The frustrating thing about density rules is that the urban form above does not necessarily result in more greenspace or less building bulk or a more spacious urban environment. Those aesthetic outcomes are controlled through the use of regulations like height, site coverage, yard controls and the like.

Sadly, yesterday the Council effectively banned the provision of affordable housing in the widespread Mixed Housing Suburban zone by requiring a density controls to be applied for all developments in that zone. Supposedly they did it to protect the character of the suburbs, but as explained above, density rules don’t affect the bulk, scale and location of development.

53 comments to Density Delusions

  • Bryce P

    4m setback? On a property that is 20m wide, that’s a loss of 80sqm of useable land. Based on the RV of my property that is $25,000 worth of land. Going off recent sales in the area, it’s real value is closer to $40K for that 80sq/m of pointless setback. Add a carpark and driveway in and you’re looking at somewhere in the region of $60 to $70K worth of land without the cost of concrete for the driveway (roughly $10K on average).

  • Andrew R

    There is still the opportunity coming to submit on the proposed plan seeking no direct density control.

  • Lennart

    I think it would be a lot more efficient if the Council decides on two housing designs, so you can pick one or the other. Relieves people of a lot of architects’ fees and choice stress.

    Furthermore, a requirement for ONE LARGE TREE? Really? I have to apply for a consent ($1000 at least) if I do not want a large tree on my property?
    If they were a little more creative they could actually see what this leads to, the most boring suburbs ever and more expensive housing…

    • Bryce P

      Crazy idea but what about good, old fashioned tree lined streets? Who needs big trees on their property? Have these people not learned anything?

      • George D

        And parks with trees in them. I’m actually a strong believer in the promotion of tree-planting, for many reasons; health, climate change; local microclimate; wind reduction; visual amenity, etc. I think that the council should be planting millions, with a large number inside the suburbs, particularly on the edges of unused council land and parks. I don’t however think that they’re the responsibility of homebuilders in moderate to high density developments.

        As for standard designs, they should definitely be built. We don’t buy custom-build cars, and haven’t for 100 years. It should be the same with housing. The key is getting a legislative and funding environment in which that can happen – I’d be quite happy for the Government to take proactive steps to encourage it, by allowing shared consenting etc.

  • George D

    These people don’t understand what they’re doing. They don’t understand the dynamics of the current situation, and they don’t understand the prospects for the future. They also don’t understand what other cities are doing elsewhere, successfully.

    The proposed rules were already massive compromises against affordability and freedom of design and lifestyle, in order to have the plan pass by Auckland’s powerful elite nimbys (notice how they had already managed to secure the inner suburbs from any real change?).

    Compare these two statements, the first from the Auckland Transportblog Twitter, and the second from councillor Peter Haynes this morning:
    Deciphering council speak:
    Community are concerned = Some nosey old nana doesn’t like it
    Loud and clear = Someone yelled at me about it

    George, it’s about striking a balance, so that intensification doesn’t destroy the character, heritage, open space and other reasons people want to live here. and, at the end of the day we live in a liberal democracy that affords the citizenry some measure of influence, and they’ve made what they want very clear to my Board.

    The words character, heritage, and open space sound so reasonable. How could anyone be against ‘heritage’? It turns out that they’re nebulous words, with a meaning that applies to whatever existing beneficiaries of Auckland’s layout desire – they’re essentially words that mean ‘least change’. And a city that does not change in the face of changing needs is one that will stagnate and suffer. We’re already suffering now, with massive house prices forcing friends of mine abroad. I don’t want that to happen.

  • Trying to get the voting records now from Council. Might be a bit of a long bow but I get them I will happily share them. At least Councillor Brewer’s amendments in three of the centres failed last night. In fact I believe two centres got an “upgrade” on the way out.

    As for this: “notice how they had already managed to secure the inner suburbs from any real change?” I am checking to see what harm has been done and whether the 160,000/40% Greenfield allocation at the RUB will now be enough. But for the meantime a battle plan is being hatched ;)

  • Aaron

    I’m actually wondering whether having unlimited density would even be beneficial. With all these development controls, would it even be possible to exceed the 1:250-400 density limit imposed? Probably if all units were the minimum 40m2, but that isn’t necessarily desirable anyway…

    • SDW

      That’s a good point, I hope some savvy architects/ urban designers do some mock designs to present in their submissions to show what could be achieved without the density controls vs with the density controls. I think a key point however is that the density controls will be used as the basis for design, and buildings will be designed to fit around this control. My preference would be for it to be the otehr way around, where issues likes amenity, privacy, sunlight, landscaping, orientation etc are used to determine optimal site sizes for a development.

  • Martin W.

    Its actually funny when they are always talking about the kids playing in the backyards. Most sites are 400-500 sqm, add a single level house and the concrete carpark for the 4 family cars, and see how much green you have left.

    • Max

      Well, but hey, there’s also the minimum outdoor space, the minimum green space and all IN ADDITION to the minimum car parks etc… – so you end up with the classical Kiwi house, writ slightly smaller. No new ideas here.

      • George D

        And the classica-kiwi-house writ smaller is often an uncomfortable and unpleasant place to live. Once the developer has written off most of the section, they tend to cut costs and corners to deliver it to market at an appropriate rate of profit. That’s the kind of thing that those seeking “liveability” are railing against. It’s unfortunate that they’ve made it much more likely.

      • Nick R

        This mandatory balcony of 8m2 is particularly ridiculous. That’s the size of a single bedroom, or enough space to provide a second bathroom and separate laundry.

        Does every house, unit and apartment in Auckland really need such a huge outdoor living space? Hell that’s twice the size of my balcony, and mine is big enough for my potted plats, and table and chairs and a barbeque.

        • Actually there are now minimum bedroom sizes of 3m x 3.5m so 10m2

          • Nick R

            So now it is illegal to build single bedrooms, great.

            Again that is bigger than one of the bedrooms in my place, which is certainly big enough for my flatmate.

          • Steve D

            Is that minimum size for one bedroom in the house or all of them? And if it’s all of them, can’t you get around it by calling a small room a “study” or something?

            For that matter, wouldn’t that affect the minimum parking rules, as well? When two bedrooms means an extra parking space, there’s a big incentive to come up with some creative way to avoid classifying the second room as a bedroom.

          • It is for the main bedroom so presumably you can have a smaller secondary room.

          • Steve D

            In that case it’s not going to be that much of a constraint, when the whole unit has to be at least 45 sqm anyway.

          • Nick R

            This is ridiculous, so my place could not be built because the bedrooms are non complying (even the master isn’t 3.5m by 3m) and the balcony is non complying. Absurd that my 100m2 luxury apartment would be illegal.

            The irony is there is a picture of my building in the Auckland Plan using it as a good example of the sort of development they want to encourage… but the Unitary Plan means their good example can’t be built!

        • Starnius

          Where is that mandatory req from? And is is INSTEAD of outdoor space (i.e. for apartments, mainly?) – in that case, I think it makes sense.

  • Max

    So by making it harder to place multi-unit developments on one property, you make it easier to provide affordable housing how? Its a fact of life that affordable housing won’t be the most spacious – so making smaller (but quality) apartments and units and halfs of houses or whatnot cheaper, you make it more likely affordable housing will be built. Sure, the term “banned” is misleading, but you can prevent something in practice quite easily without banning it formally.

    • SDW

      agree with the term “banned” – but the provisions may make it prohibitively expensive and risky to do so (e.g. through the costs of public notification, hearings, extended timeframes, appeals etc). Its not worth the fuss for a developers so they will take the easy option and apply the minimums.

    • But Max the NIMBYS don’t want affordable housing, or at least not near them. This is because they are ignorant; they think it will lower the value of their detached dwellings and because they are selfish, ditto. In the first case they are wrong, in fact their already valuable homes will be more valuable through increased scarcity, and because of the lift in economic activity through agglomeration and increased intensity all values with appreciate. And in the second case they are sad and boring.

      So it goes.

  • James Ish

    One thing about the above photo is that ample green space is wasted by the narrow passageways that run along the sides of the buildings. If these building shared one or two walls then this would significantly improve the usage of land area.

  • pete

    Those curved roads may me think of this, just stand the roads up :-) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_World

  • Stu Donovan

    another nail in the coffin of affordable housing in Auckland. Grrr.

  • Sanctuary

    The council gave up on the unlimited density plan because the scare campaign run by the Herald is seen as to politically damaging ahead of the local body elections. Bernard Orsman – who has a massive chip on his shoulder because of an imagined slight to his self-importance from the council – is basically prepared to use his position as chief local government reporter in the NZ Herald to campaign against the council to whip up fear, uncertainty and doubt in order to show the council who is boss.

    I predict that unlimited density will be back with a shiny new label once the local body elections are over.

  • Do you have any idea how this is handled in other cities or indeed in Auckland where there is terraced housing? There must be solutions without requiring that space to be wasted.

  • Joshr

    Watch houses prices come rolling backwards as promises of subdividable lots across 40% of Auckland do nothing but lift prices. Len Has played a dangerous game of which is going to cost recent home buyers dearly.. Thanks Unitary plan.
    Well, back to the govt we go. Housing accords with 3000ha in Auckland coming to market.

  • Steve D

    I’d quite like to see some examples of what actually can be built as-of-right in the THAB and MH Urban zones. I’m suspecting that there’s pretty much one possible complying building for each zone that gets the maximum permitted number of units, and they’ll be built in thousands across the city. It’ll be the architectural style of our age, just like the sausage flat was for the 1960s, and the villa for the 1890s.

    For the THAB zone, perhaps it’ll look something like this: http://goo.gl/maps/SZ3iO – a bunch of unusable grass and planting at the front and back to get the landscaping up to 40%, parking down one or both sides to make use of the setback, and then a four-storey, 40% coverage blob roughly in the middle. In fact, it’s essentially a four-storey sausage flat.

    It’s also unlikely that many apartments will be built with no parking – since thanks to the 40% building coverage rule, there’s a whole bunch of compulsory empty space that’s otherwise doing nothing – the 20% of your site that can’t be built but doesn’t have to be landscaped. If you’re a developer, why wouldn’t you pave it for cars?

    • Frank McRae

      Stupidly, that building you have pointed out in Mt Eden is in an area to be zoned Mixed Housing suburban in the Unitary Plan with a two storey height limit. So under a plan that was supposed to enable growth and intensification we won’t even be able to build to the level that already exists. We can thank the noisy Nimbys and our anti-change councillors and local boards for that.

      • TT

        Same goes for properties between 750m2 and 799m2 in MHS – previously subdividable for two townhouses sites (1/375m2) now you need 800m2. Why reduce the current accepted density when you’re trying to increase density?
        ??

  • Ana Banana

    This seems to be a classic issue of the method (i.e. the rules) not giving effect to the objectives. If the objective is to increase density, then how are the rules going to ensure that happens. What would happen if the rules of the Hobsonville point comprehensive development plan were applied to the various zones of Auckland. For example the Terrace and Apartment Housing zone could have no minimum lot size but instead have a minimum width of 4.25m. Now that would be interesting.

  • TT

    I have a 690m2 corner site that is zoned MHU under the UP. It is close to the town centre. Because of the density rule 1/300 I would only be able to build 2 dwellings on this site, each 3 storeys high. Building coverage is 40% so to maximise site useage each floor of each dwelling would be 138m2, x 3 storeys and I end up with each dwelling being 414m2. This is what the UP is encouraging me to build….2 massive 3 storey houses. How is this creating affordable housing again? And is this really a good efficient use of 690 m2 of land? They may be giving you more height in the MH Urban zone but the density rule really screws up any potential of doing anything creative, compact and affordable. Are massive three storey homes what were aiming for in the Mixed Housing Urban zones?

    • Sailor Boy

      Could build the 2 buildings and have basement flats.

    • Ana H

      Hi TT, You have forgotten about the height to boundary rule, which makes it very difficult to build three storeys.

    • Frank McRae

      TT – I agree the density rule is extremely stupid and encourages huge homes like your 414m2 example. This rule allows a certain density of buildings but not of people. Exactly the opposite of what the plan should be trying to achieve. This has come about because of certain local boards and councillors ignoring sound planning advice, and pandering to noisy, entitled, and ignorant residents groups.

      You can build to 1/ 250 m2 in the mixed housing urban zone, if there is a street frontage of 7.5 metres, which I imagine your site has. However at 690 m2 this will not help you get a third dwelling. A shame.

      • TT

        I’m concerned about a whole streetscape made up of rows of gappy 3 storey terrace like houses. Almost like an unfinished terrace house development. Maybe when they see how silly this looks and how much land it wastes they will change the rules again to allow these gaps to be in-filled to deal with the ugliness.

  • Ana H

    I think that a valuable option to test, is to remove the height to boundary rule, (although with a few exceptions). People’s expectations would need to change. Rather than having large windows on all sides of the house, sun and light would need to be maximised from the front and rear of their houses. If people wanted lots of space down the sides of their property they would need to supply it on their own land, rather than depending on their neighbour to supply space (and therefore light and sun), as is currently the rule.

    • TT

      Yes, I think in zones where you’re encouraging taller buildings its silly to have HIRB rules. All it achieves is strips of wasted land, not good for anything but storing your heat pump unit and rubbish bins, down each side.

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