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Can construction profiles help communities understand the impact of new buildings?

During the unitary plan debate last year I felt there was a lot of unjustified scaremongering about the height and bulk of buildings that the plan allowed for. Even if the Unitary Plan is passed I suspect we will still hear howls of protest from some people who over estimate just how much impact proposed developments greater than a single storey might make. One way to help solve this could be a planning policy from Switzerland known as a Bauprofile (construction profile). This is described by The Guardian.

Clusters of spindly antennae poke up from rooftops and strange boxy frames project from walls. In the distance, a line of balloons hangs improbably in the air, describing a perfect square. This surreal panorama of rods and wires, which form the ghostly apparition of an alternative skyline, is a common sight in any Swiss city, where planning policy requires the erection of the profile of a building before it is granted permission to be built.

and

Constructed from metal rods or wooden poles, fixed in place by wire guy ropes, the Swiss baugespanne or bauprofile are usually erected for a month, outlining the full height of the proposed development, with protruding markers to indicate the angle of the roof and direction of the walls. For taller buildings, tethered balloons can be used, and helicopters have even been employed to hover at a specified height for the tallest towers. Underground structures are not let off the hook either, usually having to be marked with wooden stakes at their corners.

Here’s some examples of what they look like.

This one is one I found from the blog Urbanizit

The idea is about to be trialled in the UK however I wonder if it is something we should be thinking about too. I don’t necessarily think it should be something required for all construction – although it doesn’t seem overly onerous – but perhaps it could be a useful tool for especially contentious developments to help locals understand what is proposed. I suspect for many projects it would show proposed developments are not something to fear and may help get buy-in from locals on the project or at least less opposition.

What do you think; could it help address issues with those campaigning for no change in our suburbs?

20 comments to Can construction profiles help communities understand the impact of new buildings?

  • Luke C

    I have heard this has happened in a NZ context before. Was in Queenstown for an Environment course where profiles of the houses were erected on the land to help court identify landscape effects. Not sure if this was a one off though.

  • DAS

    I have used these before, and are a good tool. It is hard to visual how a building will impact on height etc. so people imagine and assume the worst. This technique can help overcome that.

  • Kevin Welsh

    A brilliant idea. I saw this everywhere during my months stay in Switzerland last year. No surprises for the neighbours.

  • 3D printers as they become more viable would also be a good way to build an scaled model of the situation as well. What people can visually physically rather than by a screen or sheet of paper often calms the nerves and allows them to make more rational decisions

  • Bryan

    It might also help the city planners judge (or justify) how “minor” the visual impacts will be. Running a string between the tops of the poles (in the lower photo) would also help those who have difficulty visualising (like my wife).

  • Steve D

    This seems like possibly a good idea to do from time to time, particularly in ridgeline or sensitive landscape contexts, where the impact is difficult to judge, and we already have strict controls on appearance.

    But I don’t think it should be universal or anything close to it. The last thing we need is more regulations that give Concerned Neighbours more opportunity to object to construction that should be routine. For 95% of the city, there should just be a sensible height limit and you should be allowed to build up to it as of right (assuming you meet the other requirements). The way we have at the moment works for no-one: existing residents have no real guarantees about what sort of thing can be built, and developers don’t know whether they’ll be allowed to build at all. The risk increases costs, not to mention the waste for investigation of projects that don’t succeed. Those costs are passed on to buyers.

    Look at the bottom photo: you shouldn’t need a discretionary resource consent to build a two-storey building anywhere, at least in the sense that you’re deciding whether or not the height itself is acceptable.

    • Warren S

      I have spent quite a bit of time in recent years in Switzerland and can confirm that I have seen many examples of pre-construction profiles. What I have no idea about, are the official bureaucratic requirements relating to these profiles, but once erected they stay up for some time. And many are in the sub three storey category!

  • Christopher T

    There was a really grand, quite detailed, construction profile erected in Berlin in 1993, of the Stadtschloss, currently being recreated: http://www.aic.pt/_snippets/previewimage/index.cfm?imgid=43102796

  • Sigmund

    Seems sensible. I’d also argue that high quality visuals of a new development or refurbishment should be displayed for locals to have a look at. I think this would prompt a lot more focus on the quality of design rather than just the development happening. Would have been a very different outcome to the monstrosity on Tamaki Drive in St Heliers, I suspect. The public images made available for that were tucked away in the local library and didn’t give anything like a feel for what came about.

  • SteveC

    I noticed a billboard announcing a public meeting on the Plan to be held by local Kaipatiki board members, including one G Gillon, small chance of a balanced presentation there!

  • robert adams

    The problem isnt the height so much as the impact on neighbours privacy and outlooks. The height controls are a very crude mechanism and in the hands of a poor designer produce appalling results.The Unitary Plan in my view will result in poor design , The UP should have tackled the issue of consolidating sites more comprehensively before allowing more intense development and increased heights. I have suggested before on this blog that minimum lot sizes of at least 4 to 5000 m2 should be used so that developments can have decent setbacks from sensitive boundaries and at this scale good urban design can produce some stunning results. I have also advocated for Urban design authorities to be created to take on redevelopments of a whole suburban block or blocks which would remove the limitations of the existing titles,allow rationalisation of the roading including removing roads and basically create scope for creative design. The Urban authorities could be local community/council based partnerships which would allow the local community to participate in the look and feel of redevelopment.

    • Steve D

      A 4000sqm minimum development size (that’s an acre!) means effectively buying at least 10 sections. Consolidating even two adjacent sites is an achievement. Consolidating ten sections in a usable shape is close to impossible. It’s a game for shopping malls, universities and other enterprises with planning horizons measured in multiple decades.

      Even then they tend to end up with awkward holes from people who either don’t want to sell, or get wise to what’s going on and hold out for multiple times the value of their property on its own.

      The new Warehouse development on Balmoral Road, which has its pros and cons, is putting a new street through the middle to open up some more frontage and create a more fine-grained block. That’s a model I’d like to see more of, but it took them more than a decade to assemble the site, which still has a major hole, and that’s in a run-down area, with commercial owners, and on considerably larger parcels than in a residential area. Countdown is doing a similar (but IMO even better) thing with Vinegar Lane, and there they lucked out because there was a large site already available. There’s very, very few sites like that left.

      Insisting that huge projects are the only allowable form of development is, in practical terms, forbidding residential development almost entirely, and limiting commercial or industrial redevelopments to a tiny few giant developers with deep enough pockets to play the game long-term, not to mention deep enough pockets to develop a 4000 sqm site in one go!

      My proposal for remedying design problems is almost the exact opposite to yours:

      * binding and predictable height, coverage and density limits,
      * strictly limit the range of notified consent issues that let neighbours drag things out expensively and, usually, not constructively.
      * instead, increase the non-negotiable design controls that are assessed by the council as limited notification, to require higher quality
      * very, very small minimum lot sizes that allow one unit/site even in a high density development
      * for those sites that are large enough, encourage fee simple subdivision accessed by new public streets vested in the council, rather than private, gated, unit titled cul-de-sacs. Particularly relevant for terraced and town houses.
      * eliminate front setbacks, reduce side setbacks as appropriate, and design buildings to work better close together rather than insisting that distance is the only solution
      * allow developers to eliminate side setback requirements permanently on boundaries that they create via consolidation or subdivision

      The first three are a direction the Unitary Plan is very, very tentatively moving toward. The others are nowhere on the radar.

      That consolidation issue is something I wonder about with Unit Title developments though, since that system is now about 40 years old. The buildings are fine for now, but it’ll be very hard to consolidate them in the future. And there you need to go for broke and buy 100% of the units. Does that mean they’ll never be redeveloped, even if the building becomes dilapidated or is no longer a good use for the site?

  • robert adams

    Steve while I understand and see the merit in your proposals what you propose is micro infill and ‘garden grabbing’ An important part of what i am proposing is engaging with the community via an urban authority to get community ownership of development in their neighbourhood. Most people when confronted with random adhoc development with significant impacts on individual neighbours versus a planned consultative precinct plan will choose the latter. A good example is the Anzac precinct in Takapuna. From what I understand this received widespread support from the residents . This precinct is now zoned for medium rise 3 to 6 stories over a minimum of 3 sites. So it is possible with the right approach. A local authority community partnership puts the community in the drivers seat instead of the developer whose motivations are usually one dimensional. The biggest enemy of great urban design is the inherited land subdivision system based originally on the septic tank.
    The UP will lead to a spate of micro infill by quick flick developers that will see the removal of significant areas of landscaping and create a sea of concrete drives. It is much better to get some efficiency by consolidating lots and circulation routes.
    The benefits of urban design on this scale need to be sold to the community and more importantly the right structure needs to be set up to make it possible. The UP is definitely the wrong approach and will lead to degradation of the built environment. Once built the micro infills as you pointed out will be very difficult to remove and the job of consolidation will become even more problematic.

    • Frank McRae

      Garden grabbing is an emotive and misleading term. Infill of landscaped areas can easily be prevented through site coverage controls which exist in the Unitary Plan. This misplaced fear should not be used as a reason to give even more control to the ‘community’ (aka the most time rich and intrusive people in an area). Why should a ‘community’ have ownership of land that it doesn’t own? Expanding the extensive rights communities already have over development is a good way to ensure nothing ever gets built.

    • Nick R

      Robert, what you call micro infill and ‘garden grabbing’ isn’t actually likely, given that most gardens are already grabbed and in-filled already. The days of buying a now mythical quarter acre section and building a second house on the lawn are well gone. In the higher value areas where development pressures are great enough to happen, it has already happened. What is left are subdivided sites, and sites with one house that is in the middle or otherwise not conducive to a quick and dirty infill.

      I have to ask why you think small scale development must have bad urban design while large scale development must be good. If you are going to require big developments to have council and community design control then why not simply do the same for small and large alike?

      Your proposal is ludicrous from my perspective. Take where I live currently for example, a single house on just over 1000m2 with a wide street frontage and some sea views. Perfect candidate. We are waiting for the unitary plan to redevelop, our only question is whether to have a row of three large terraced houses each with their own garden, or a block of four apartments with communal grounds. The main point of that is to give my parents an affordable place to live in their retirement.

      If your suggestion was the rules we could not do that. To get over 3000m2 we would need our place, plus the two town houses next door, and the duplex to the other side, plus the two houses to the back. That’s seven titles with a combined CV of about $9m, and who knows quite how much the market value is. So to do anything we would have to spend $15m and 15 years acquiring a whole bunch of properties from unwilling sellers. In other works, nothing would ever happen, as noted above. If you force ridiculous constraints like that the only outcome is almost no intensification and more green fields sprawl instead.

      But let’s assume that I could somehow manage to buy and demolish my six neighbours houses to assemble a large enough parcel. Having taken a decade and sunk in fifteen million of capital and having access to sufficient development credit, I would need to build a forty unit development to even get my money back. If I did manage to do that it would be the only one in the neighbourhood, a big apartment block built to maximum allowances in the middle of a low rise single house suburb. What is worse urban design?

      If you set those sort of constraints the only players would be the largest development companies with the clout to invest tens of millions into a single development. Such developments would be few and far between, and the ones that did occur would be done to maximise return and nothing more.

      The only way I could see that working is if the council somehow got the power to compulsorily acquire people’s homes, package the land together, and on sell it to development companies. The likelihood of that happening is zero. Intensification has to be primarily based around single site small scale redevelopment, or it will never happen at all.

    • Comrade Robert – this sounds dangerously like Communism by requiring the proletariat to have say in how the bourgeois land owners use their own land. As well as an attack on already eroded private property rights in Auckland.

      A real capitalist, libertarian would be fighting to allow all land owners to have as much freedom as possible to develop their land as they see fit. No minimum lot sizes, no maximum coverage, no setback, no minimum parking as a minimum.

      “the removal of significant areas of landscaping and create a sea of concrete drives” – one way to avoid all the concrete drives is to scrap the minimum parking requirements. Then a lot more developments can be made with no motor vehicle access and no driveways – voila!

      • robert adams

        Why stop there comrade we could ban the vehicle altogether ( or tax them outrageously,) since they stop us building more beautiful buildings.The car only covers our wonderful buildings in black soot anyway!!!!. Moving on from the left /right boring conversation most cityzens of this wonderful country are capable of participating in an intelligent dialogue about development in their neighbourhood. Hence my proposal is about creating a structure that would allow some rational thinking about the best way to bring about intensification. Most residents if not all would wish to stay in their burb but often their housing has become unsuitable…too big ..too small etc The residents could be stakeholders/shareholders in the redevelopment of their properties (thus protecting their property rights create a fantastic neighbourhood and reap the the gains in value if that is where your focus is. By precinct planning the efficiencies are maximised and the larger scale of the development allows the incorporation of communal spaces such as cinemas,cafes,creches and the like along with useful sided green spaces for kids to run around in. As I mentioned the precinct plan for the Anzac quarter in Takapuna has already been adopted and as far as I know was readily accepted by the residents. The missing component in the Anzac
        precinct is a player with the vision and finance to take it the next step. Most developers do not have the grunt to take on such a large project mainly because of the fallout from the Crash. A community/local authority partnership is a viable alternative structure that could lead to sensitive design orientated intensification. Once the ball is rolling the model could be established in other neighbourhoods.

    • Steve D

      I agree with you that you can get a better layout through wholesale redevelopment of a whole block than working site by site. I’m saying that if we insist that’s the only model possible, pretty much nothing will get built. It’s really hard to consolidate properties, and even if you can, most developers are small-time, and can’t handle building on that kind of scale.

      The actual Unitary Plan has taken a sort of middle ground – to make decent use of sites in the Terraced House and Apartment Buildings zone (“THAB”), you need to amalgamate 1200 sqm: about three parcels. I don’t think you’ll see much more traditional infill than now: the Unitary Plan doesn’t actually make that easier.

      Consolidation is a huge issue, but there are solutions that avoid it. You can build good houses on really small sites, if you want. Read the post about Vinegar Lane, which has some good links as well. If you abandon the detached-on-all-sides giant-front-setback model, you can build buildings the way they’ve been in cities for thousands of years: wall to wall, right on the street, with the private space out the back or in a courtyard – where it’s actually private.

      400 sqm is actually tons of space: that’s far larger than typical lots in traditional Auckland town centres, and there are apartment buildings and commercials in the CBD on lots that small. If you think about it, even 200 sqm = a two-storey, 200 sqm house, plus 100 sqm back yard. All you need to do is lose the largely useless front and side setbacks.

      You do end up with a lot of driveways to access infill properties at the moment, but that’s not a result of the subdivision pattern. That’s because district plans, and the Unitary Plan, require off-street parking, even if there’s space left on-street, and require that parking to be on the actual site, and limit the extent to which you are permitted to share driveways. There’s also significant market demand for that, anyway. I think people don’t actually value outdoor space in practice as much as we might think, given how happily they trade it for slightly easier parking.

      But you still end up with that pattern if you redevelop sites en masse. Handling all the cars is the biggest issue with higher density living in an auto-oriented city, and it raises an interesting question – see this post “how much of density is just less space for cars?“.

      I think the future for Auckland is going to have to be wholesale redevelopment of areas close to town centres, from a detached pattern to the genuinely urban construction we see in actual town centres right now. But it’s not going to work if we need to wait for one single person to buy ten sites at once. At the moment, the idea of piecemeal change seems to be unthinkable. But if the existing sites are already large enough – and they are – there’s no reason that this process can’t take place the same way it did quite naturally until the late 20th century – just rezone it, and let individual sites redevelop when they please. There’s still detached houses dotted around Eden Terrace, for example, and even two in the CBD. No forced change, just an acknowledgement that the city changes over time.

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