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Small can be good

Something strange seems to be happening at the Herald. Recently we have started to see an increasing number of stories that talk about the positives of apartments and higher density living which is completely opposite to the scaremongering we saw during the draft Unitary Plan debate last year. This one was in the herald yesterday – yes it’s the Herald on Sunday which is technically a different publication but we have seen it in the normal herald recently too.

Welcome to your new home. Step inside the flexible living space, which converts into an extra bedroom for guests and a home office during the week.

The two bedrooms also morph into multi-use spaces as needed – an office, a TV room, a studio or workroom. The walls are double insulated against the sound of the high-speed trains passing nearby, and the big, north-facing windows provide passive solar heating.

There’s no garage but you can hire a car just down the street and park your bike in the lock-up.

That aroma? Your neighbours are firing up a welcome barbecue down in the communal courtyard. Grab a lettuce from the rooftop garden for a salad and tuck in.

That’s one vision for how we could be living in 20 years. As demand grows for scarce city land, the population grows and property prices soar, it could well be a reality.

It’s not just a vision of our children’s future, either. It’s already the urban way of life in some parts of the world and has been for generations.

For some the idea of this won’t be appealing but for many others – like many in our younger generations – it’s an idea that doesn’t concern them and for many may even be desirable. in 2012 Patrick put together this wonderful post highlighting people who choose to live in an apartment.

Not everyone wants to live in apartments – and not everyone wants them next door, either. Submissions are open on Auckland Council’s proposed Unitary Plan, the planning document that replaces the region’s 13 existing district and regional plans. Much of the public reaction has been opposition to medium and high-density residential developments in the suburbs.

Generation Zero, a youth-led organisation focused on climate change, found itself aligned with the Property Council and developers in their support for more intensive housing. “The current housing stock doesn’t reflect the changing attitudes of young people in terms of what housing they want,” says spokesman Carlos Chambers.

“There’s certainly a willingness to take hits on things like having your own private garden or section.”

He says new housing models have benefits like healthier lifestyles, less traffic congestion, people walking more and feeling more connected to their communities.

One of the comments we frequently make when discussing density is that it is important not just to put lots of dwellings in but that access to amenities is key; otherwise it’s just amplifying the really negative aspects of the lower density development that is so common in the suburbs – especially those built after 1950. It’s a point picked up well in the next section.

Ingrained ideas may not be easy to shift. Auckland University professor of urban design Errol Haarhoff and lecturer in urban planning Lee Beattie studied developments in New Lynn, Onehunga and Albany. Residents felt they were a good place to live and raise children but half still aimed to one day live in a stand-alone house on a full section.

Haarhoff is sceptical of this aspiration, which he says would be unrealistic for many. “If you then went on to explain that if you had a house in Botany Downs or Orewa or one of those urban fringe subdivisions, your kids would no longer be able to walk to school, there would be no amenities, there wouldn’t even be a dairy within 5km, I imagine the response would be more considered.”

He says the key to creating quality apartment developments is thinking outside the home as much as in it: Where are the shops, parks, schools and cafes? Can you walk there?

“You’ve got to design viable neighbourhoods and communities,” he says. “You can go out there and build 3000 houses but you have to deliver the schools, shops, cafes and connections.”

Good examples of medium density housing exist, often in inner-city suburbs like Freemans Bay, Kingsland, Ponsonby and Mt Eden. The amenities in those neighbourhoods – cafes, shops and parks – help negate the need for more space at home. “The cafe downstairs in the apartment block is the extension of the living room,” he says.

“You go to my local park (in Grey Lynn) and it’s full of mums and dads playing with their kids, meeting each other. Those spaces are there to be used to create a sense of community instead of coming inside and closing the drawbridge. We’re going to reach a point where those big 200sq m houses on the edge of the city are going to start not finding a market.”

One part that did catch my attention was about the change in the size of dwellings over time.

Why, then, are Kiwis still so firmly attached to living big?

If you’re building a new house today, it is probably at least 50 per cent bigger than what your grandparents would have built.

On an international scale, New Zealand’s houses are huge, and keep getting bigger. The average floor area for a new build last year was 197sqm -in crowded Auckland it was 203sq m. Nationally, that’s up from 135sq min 1990 – equivalent to a couple of extra bedrooms.

The size of new-builds was steadily climbing until 2010, when a stutter in the property market saw a drop. In Auckland, it peaked at 217sq min 2010, then dipped to 209sqmin 2011 and to 203sqm last year.

That’s perhaps because the number of apartments built in the region took a steep upturn last year-from 616 in 2012 to 1059 in the year to November.

But even the apartments are roomy – the average size last year was 113sq m. Compare that to the 45sqm average dwelling size in Hong Kong, 76sqmin the UK, or 95sqmin Japan.

Bigger dwellings have been a trend in not just NZ but other countries too. Seeing how much I like charts, I thought I would show just how much the average dwelling size has changed the result is below.

Average Dwelling Size

The big dip in 02-08 period ties in with when larger numbers of apartments were being built. The graph below shows the size of Auckland houses and apartments compared to the rest of New Zealand. Due to some apartments averaging well above 100m² I assume the figures must be including the likes of terraced houses.

Average House Sizes

What I find most interesting is the average house size in Auckland was roughly identical compared to the rest of NZ from about 1999 through to mid-2004 before getting substantially larger just before the GFC. I’m guessing there are multiple reasons behind the trend and that one of those is due to a desire to get more out of the land which is generally more valuable in Auckland than other parts of New Zealand.

The data also includes information about subsections of Auckland based on the old council boundaries providing some very interesting information at a sub-regional level. The next graph shows the average dwelling size consented for the different areas of Auckland (I’m not sure why the North Shore is so spiky at times).

Auckland Dwelling Size

As would be expected, Auckland City saw the lowest sizes for some time which was primarily due to it being where the majority of apartments were built. As apartment construction dried up, the average size of houses increased.

The next graph shows the average house size. What I find interesting is how house sizes in the old Waitakere City Council area have been consistently lower than in the rest of Auckland while in the last 5 or so years the area with the largest homes being built has been on the North Shore.

Auckland House Size

Unfortunately while the data is available, it isn’t really possible to show apartments at this granularity clearly and the graph just looks like an even bigger mess of colours

It will be interesting to see where average house sizes go in the future.

27 comments to Small can be good

  • Overall, a good show from the Herald, although I think it still tends to classify the trend as being primarily about the young and the childless. I think NZ commentators generally ignore that all of the attractions of compact, central living apply to families as well, not withstanding that people with kids also want some additional elements [and not necessarily large gardens]. Having kids does not make everyone flee the city by choice, just lack of options for suitable homes often.

    I think it’s also relevant that the story correlates with this one on the choices that Kiwis are making when it comes to buying cars:

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11188368

    • Good point Tim. Housing Affordability and Transport Accessibility are two sides of the same coin.

      Very important that more apartments are offered without bundled carparks so people have the chance to exercise more freedom in both their dwelling location and their movement options.

    • TheBigWheel

      Auckland’s central city is starkly different from most Asian and European cities in having so few facilities for families or children. Like schools, parks, or walkable streets.

  • Tim W

    Are all of your graphs new build statistics?

  • Loraxus

    Larger apartments are important for family living – something that too many NZers (especially politicians) still consider barely short of child abuse.

    However, large apartments are generally marketed as luxury pads – NOT being aimed at families who don’t want or can’t afford a suburban house.

    And as the post says, it is also about the quality of the urban realm. Kids don’t need to get their roughhousing in the park fix in some shoe-horned-in lawn 3m x 5m in front of an apartment building (beware of future Unitary Plans bringing minimum “playspace areas” ;-) ). They need to have good urban playgrounds and parks.

  • Bryce P

    We bought and moved into Kensington Park in Orewa. 2 adults and 1 x 6 year old.
    There is no reason why this kind of low rise, high density development cannot be replicated elsewhere in Auckland. Prices here are not particularly cheap but much of that has to do with the proximity to the beach or where places have sea views. It is a fantastic place to live. We have gone from a 1,300 sq/m, single dwelling, 1920′s, 140sqm Cali Bungalow to a 2 level, 2 bedroom 144 sqm dwelling ( incl roughly 38sqm of 2 x tandem garage on lower level).

  • just saying

    Double internal garaging is now virtually universal on new builds, and would account for at least 40m² GFA to the days when it was standard to have a standalone garage.

  • Ari

    I always laugh when people complain about the price of new houses in NZ when we consider the fact that while prices have outstripped income, the size of houses(and the luxury ammenities they include) these days are huge compared to the homes of the 1950′s. Of course if you are paying millions for a house from the 1950′s then you are probably buying for other reasons.

  • Matt

    One thing i’ve noticed recently are the number of apartment-style retirement villages going up in the central suburbs… Off the top of my head Mt Eden, Mt Albert & Meadowbank have examples but there are likely to be more. I find it a tad ironic that the generations who oppose mid-rise intensification will soon, in retirement, be catered for with really lovely apartment blocks. Whats more, the quality and design of these developments seem superior to the ‘all-ages’ counterparts.

    • Ran Derson

      I’ve observed that too – when I search online for affordable housing for my young family, the results usually include retirement units! Units that would otherwise be perfect for our situation – close to town, affordable and low maintenance.

  • It is not really the size that counts it is the effiency and aesthetics of the design that really matters.

    Several years ago we completed a small residential subdivision in Auckland. The smallest house in the subdivision was 70m2. We were advised against building it as the advisors believed that there was no market for this sized house.

    I like a good challenge so we decided to build the house to maximise the available land and internal space. There was a large dominating Puriri tree which we trimed instead of cutting down (as advised) and used it to screen some of the road noise and provide privacy/shade as well as allowed Tuis to visit/feed on in summer.

    The house had three bedrooms, open plan lving with the master bedroom having an ensuite. Attached carport and spacious back yard (total land area 230m2). We worked with the Architect and removed the hallway, created a washing closet beside the kitchen and used the main bathroom to seperate living from the bedrooms. We used sound proofing insulation (fantastic product for minimal extra cost), built really wide roofing eves and even installed wooden window sills (very few modern homes have them) to ensure no water seepage. The attached carport used a 50/50 of coloursteel and clear polymer roofing products. We had plans for a communual watertank to collect the rainwater for reuse but the water tank was very expensive at the time (may install in future though).

    The end result was very good, the house was compact but spacious enough for a small family. The proof of pudding was whether it was attractive to tenants.

    From day one onf trademe we were swamped with enquiries and had it tenanted within three days by a small family. The same family are there today and absolutely love the house.

    • Great to hear of a developer trying something new and fantastic to hear it was a sucess. 230sqm is more than enough land for a decent house – despite what our planning laws say. No set back, no wasted side space, no double garage, no massive lawn that your children play on once a month and there you have it. Parks and beaches are a lot better for kids. Remember when you used to spend all weekend in the pool at your school – despite the huge backyard?

      When we were looking for a home, we looked at a lot of terraced houses in the Three Kings to Ellerslie zone. The agent told us that she could sell as many of those as were built, the demand was so high.

      One issue was that leaky buildings had tainted some developments but that wasnt a general rule.

      I really believe that many people are questioning the need for such huge houses. I am sure the percentage of people wanting those massive houses on the city fringe is contracting, though there will always be a market.

      • Max

        Having gone the opposite way – from a cozy CBD apartment (which I loved) to a suburban house with a huge section (which I also love, though it’s mostly my partner who is making good use of the garden space), it pays to restate the point – nobody is FORCED to either live in apartments, or large houses. But our current planning rules clearly “pick winners”, and that has to change, because then it becomes a distorted market that forces people into choices that do not fit them, and their particular point in their life.

        One day, we may move out into the countryside, and sell the house again. At that time, I may want a (really tiny) apartment, so I can still have a pad in the city. Demand changes all the time. Don’t plan for what was most desired in the past, and idealise it into a one-for-all scheme, demonising other options as “shoeboxes” and “urban ghettos”. Good urban design has little to do with sqm amount of living space.

      • Ran Derson

        “I am sure the percentage of people wanting those massive houses on the city fringe is contracting”

        I think you’re right – many of the enormous 5-bed houses at Babich Hills aren’t selling (a subdivision in Ranui, on the outskirts of West Auckland). They’re 25 km from town and they’re hugely expensive (up to $1m) despite being built in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in West Auckland.

        Meanwhile I’ve started looking for a small house closer to town. Always on the look out for new developments!

      • Most of our planning rules seem to be far too restrictive.

        I have just come back from time in South America and spent some time looking at a housing complex in Brazil. Housing complexes there tend not to have cheap housing as they have common areas eg. playgrounds, soccer field, pool etc and they are built within a large enveloping security fence.
        This particular complex had 300 sq m sections and it was permissible to build right to the edge of every boundary apart from the front one. And that’s what most did only leaving small bbq areas at the rear. This very popular complex had about 50 houses under construction testifying to the popularity of this type of living.

        Meanwhile here we seem to be rooted to the same style of development that has existed for generations. Some of it is to be treasured, but some of it is just plain ugly. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about a new house jammed on top of the existing old one -certainly it does not provide the visual appeal that a well designed terrace or apartment can offer. I have grown up with this mish mash of housing and have profited from exploiting what has been allowed, but let’s also concede that other options may serve people just as well.

  • I would love to be able to buy a three room unit suspended above a large whole-level workshop. There’s a lot of non-functional space in most houses that i just don’t need and I’d rather have space I actually want.

    • Steve D

      @Daniel:

      Like this sort of thing, but a few more bedrooms? – http://www.trademe.co.nz/property/commercial-property-for-sale/auction-638241260.htm

      You’ll need to check the zoning for the specific site you’re interested in, but I think many commercial/industrial zones allow residential use if you’re working on-site. I’d think you could pretty easily find some space and refit some living space. If it’s your dream, make it happen!

    • John Polkinghorne

      There are various live/ work apartment type developments, although you might be pushing it to find a 3-bedroom one, and I’m guessing there might be a fair bit of noise coming out of the workshop, in which case yeah I imagine Steve’s idea is a better one…

    • Steve D

      @John:

      Yeah, I was just assuming that anyone who wanted such a large workshop was wanting to do something inappropriate for a residential zone. If it’s for totally personal, quiet, non-odorific hobby work, and Daniel really wants a residential zone, best options are probably an existing house with a really big garage, or a custom build. It’s a very specific requirement, so a custom build is going to deliver the best result.

      But a small commercial building is probably easier to refit. Something in an existing light industrial or other general business zone that’s been rezoned as Mixed Use in the Unitary Plan could be a winner, since he might end up actually getting some neighbours :-)

  • Bryan

    They do have million dollar views. lol

    However, they are not in one of the poorest areas of West Auckland (that’s “new” Ranui, more than 1km away on the other side of the tracks, and $350k+). The two neighbouring areas are Ranui Heights ($500k+) and Lake Panorama ($700k+).

    • Ran Derson

      That’s true – my analysis is based on the school zone, as the houses in the region would appeal to young families.

      The Babich Hills subdivision is on the Eastern side of Metcalfe Road and is zoned for the decile 7 Summerland Primary school. Across Metcalfe Road, the Western side is zoned for the decile 2 Ranui Primary school. The road serves a distinct rich/poor, new/old line.

  • TheBigWheel

    “Something strange seems to be happening at the Herald. Recently we have started to see an increasing number of stories that talk about the positives of apartments and higher density living…”

    Ah.. this might explain it: apartments, boomer style. As in, everyone under 50 bog right off.

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11190576

    So, what did the boomers ever do for us??

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