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7 April 2022

Density done well

Demand for more compact homes on smaller sites is on the increase, particularly given Auckland’s rapid population growth and skyrocketing land values. With forethought and the adoption of some fundamental design principles, smaller really could mean better.


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When you look back into Auckland’s recent past, higher density housing has often equated to lower design and build quality. As a city, we should be learning from the past and building for the future. However, the latest changes to densification rules in single-house zones across Auckland appears to have led to Wild West-style land grab, with developers and builders high-tailing it out into the suburbs and, in many cases, putting up a less-than-desirable rash of new housing.

What does or should good medium housing density look like, and what are the options? It’s a good question that needs to be carefully considered if we are to avoid solving one issue by creating an even bigger one for our city in the future.

The first trick is tackling how to shoehorn these more densely populated buildings into our suburbs without ruining the existing streetscapes. Architect Ben Sando is one of the directors at Ashton Mitchell, a leading Auckland architectural firm and recipient of multiple NZIA awards for their multi-residential housing projects. He says it’s important to point out that there’s no ‘one size fits all solution for medium density housing. However, there should be commonalities – strong architectural forms, quality materials, and a clearly defined design language that allow for variations on a theme, without becoming the design equivalent of a ‘free for all garage sale’, as he puts it.

Closer to home, in Grey Lynn, Brown cites The Isaac by Ockham Residential as an excellent example of how to deal with a large site by creating public space and laneway that subdivides the development to give each building a decent street frontage and sense of community.

“Sunderland Precinct by Studio Pacific Architecture shows the importance of high-quality landscaping to achieving a great interface between the building and the street,” says Sando.

“This project has a rear ‘pocket park’ to create communal amenity and a great outlook space. It also has private courtyards, which are elevated above the level of the park to provide a feeling of privacy to residents while still allowing them to look down over the park.”

Closer to town, Kainga Ora’s Ladies Mile development by Andre Hodgskin shows how a tricky site in the centre of an established neighbourhood can be successfully redeveloped.

Basic essentials

When you draw up a list of must-haves for your home, space, light and privacy all come to mind. These basic needs should not be ‘added extras’ in the brochure but be an integral part of the design. Both Brown and Sando agree.

“All medium-density developments can and should provide these aspects to all dwelling units,” says Brown. “In fact, light and privacy are more easily achieved in terrace duplex and apartment developments than intensive stand-alone housing, where neighbours are facing each other over side yards of barely a metre. Space, however, is a luxury, and every square metre addsx cost to a development, so it is imperative that buildings are spatially efficient.”

The volume of space is also critical, says Brown. Stud heights of 2.6m and greater give a feeling of generosity to internal areas and allow greater daylight penetration and better ventilation outcomes.

From a developer’s perspective – which invariably is trying to achieve maximum yield – space and light can be challenging to deliver, but they remain incredibly important, says Sando. “A strategy that we adopt, where possible, is to use higher ceilings and taller window-head heights. Even an extra 200mm makes a big difference to the feeling of space in a small living room. Taking the windows up to the ceiling allows for views of the sky and full daylight access, which is important to avoid the feeling of being hemmed in on all sides.”

“Storage is often missed out of medium-density developments, to squeeze yet another bedroom or bathroom into an already crammed floor plate,” adds Sando. “It’s important to allow space for sports gear, vacuum cleaners, garden equipment, and the general stuff of life, which normally doesn’t fit into the bedroom wardrobe. In terrace developments, outdoor storage lockers can be designed to integrate into the front or rear yard landscaping. In apartment projects, basement storage units are an ideal solution.”

Need for guidelines

The sheer number and intensity of small-site developments currently being built in our suburbs are putting the system to the test. “There is a serious lack of enforceable design standards in areas of suburban intensification,” says Brown. “All the relevant information is available in the Auckland Design Guide, but planners need to be given the ability to enforce the principles it sets out.”

“There is an appalling amount of poor-quality in-fill intensification happening in suburban areas without any thought being given to the quality of design – either of the units themselves or the changes to the suburb as a whole. When this happens piecemeal, site by site, there seems to be no way that the council can ensure a good design outcome. This contrasts with large site developments where the quality of design can be enforced through the resource consent process.”

Sando agrees with Brown that there should be design guidelines to allow the new buildings to integrate as best they can with their neighbours. “These can be as simple as adopting the Victorian Recode privacy and outlook setbacks, which states that there needs to be a 9-metre separation between your living area windows and any neighbours private outdoor space. This allows for intensification and building bulk to be located against boundaries where it doesn’t impact on neighbouring private outdoor space.”

“So, rather than being a blanket, one-size-fits-all rule, which is currently being proposed, it would require designers to actually look at the existing context and work within the constraints. This will ultimately lead to the best of both worlds: significant intensification in existing suburbs, without significantly impacting on the amenity of neighbouring residents.”

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