The case for small homes

Households are shrinking, property prices soaring and city land is running out — so why do our homes keep getting bigger? With Auckland set to house an extra million people in the next 30 years, Heather McCracken looks at an emerging trend towards compact living.

Maulik Sataria in his Altitude apartment. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Maulik Sataria in his Altitude apartment. Photo / Jason Oxenham

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.

In Auckland, in particular, the pressure is on to find space for up to one million extra people.

The case for accommodating them in smaller, denser housing is strong - affordability, better environmental and health outcomes, less traffic congestion and improved quality of life.

How much can moving to an apartment improve your life? A University of Zurich study on commuting found for a single person, swapping a long drive to work for a short walk had the same impact on happiness as finding a new love.

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.

So when did the quarter-acre dream turn into the five-bedroom, two-bathroom, double garage dream? Architect Richard Goldie says perhaps it's human nature to keep wanting more. "I'm astonished by the nature of houses that get built these days. We've got a little bit silly about things," he says. "A lot of people are living in houses that are much bigger than they use."

Goldie, the New Zealand Institute of Architects Auckland branch chairman, says attitudes to apartment- living had been soured by the early "terrible examples of shoebox apartments".

But there are now better examples of high-density housing. And as our society changes, there's likely to be more demand for small, low-maintenance living. "My family and I live in a four-bedroom house in the suburbs. If we could find a four-bedroom terraced house closer in with all the amenities we have now, we'd do it tomorrow," he says.

Dan Heyworth, CEO of design and- build company Box Living, is also sceptical about whether those extra square metres are really needed. He says there is a temptation to go bigger with a new build because it can look deceptively cheaper.

The most expensive parts of the home are the kitchen and bathroom, so any extra floor space after that increasingly brings the total cost per square metre down.

Box Living specialises in architect- designed homes with some fixed constraints that keep costs predictable. They're not all tiny but they don't do big for the sake of it.

Heyworth is convinced 10 to 20 per cent of floor area could be designed out of most houses without any loss in amenity. The difference is made up by efficient use of space, plenty of light and getting the proportions right.

Among their recent builds is a 140sq m home for a family of five. "There's very little wasted space, or dead areas in the floor plan," he says.

A growing number of people returning or immigrating are accustomed to living in compact spaces, and want high-quality small homes.

"Smaller is hard to design, that's for sure. If you can't design it well, design it big."


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.

Property developers are building more small-scale, high-quality homes,but their plans often face stiff opposition from local residents.

A proposal in Milford, by the New Zealand Retail Property Group, has been opposed by locals who think the buildings of up to 16 storeys are out of scale with the neighbourhood.

At an Environment Court hearing in November, the scale of the apartments came under fire from a judge, who questioned the "quality" of 70sqm homes.

Judge Jeff Smith said good apartments tended to have larger floor plates. Most owner-occupied apartments were about 120sqm.

New Zealand Retail Property Group's general manager, Campbell Barbour, says: "I don't think anyone in the industry would disagree that apartments need to be done well, and arguably better than they have done in the past, and I think they will be. There's a lot of people living in a lot of parts of the world in 70 to 80sqm apartments that are superb."


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."

Auckland Mayor Len Brown says the landscape in Auckland is changing, and there's a greater choice of homes being provided. In an interview this week with the Herald on Sunday, he points to the 76 per cent increase in apartment consents, year-on-year, as a sign the market is responding to the need for a variety of homes.

"It generally follows a time of high demand for housing options and choices," he says. Housing developments around town centres and close to rail links, such as New Lynn and Manukau, are hugely popular.

That doesn't mean there won't still be sprawl. Brown says the Unitary Plan aims for the city's growth to be "a bit up and a bit out".

In the Government's fast-tracked special housing areas, 10,000 new homes will be built in Auckland - some in urban areas, many in greenfields projects on the city fringes. But sprawl has twice the infrastructure costs of intensification, along with greater transport demand and environmental impact.

Ensuring quality developments is key, and Brown points to examples such as The Isaac in Grey Lynn as the kind of intensification that should be encouraged. "The same-old, same-old wasn't and isn't good enough," Brown says. "There have been plenty of examples of poor intensive development around apartment towers. We want to use that as a learning from years gone by, and do something much better."

For many young people, like 26-year-old lawyer Carlos Chambers, something much better means a compact lifestyle, as he experienced while living in a tiny Amsterdam apartment. "I could jump on my bike and be in the city in two and- a-half minutes. There were beautiful common spaces like parks. Among young people, there's broad buy-in for that model."


Suburban sprawl later

Apartment life suits 28-year-old bank worker Maulik Sutariya.

He and wife Namrata Umatia moved into the 40sqm one bedroom apartment at Altitude Apartments in Auckland's inner city two months ago. With no balcony, the flat wouldn't comply with the proposed Unitary Plan, but Sutariya says large windows keep the space airy and sunny.

Managing a compact space can be challenging-but there's less time spent cleaning, and you learn to not buy too much stuff, he says. "Every time you shop, you always think of space."

Sutariya says he loves the city lifestyle, and his 10-minute walk to work.

"Living in the city is an enjoyment in itself formeas there is always someevent going on, and without waiting for long hours in traffic.

"Once we start our family maybe [we'll] move to suburbs but still I will prefer to live in suburbs nearest to the city."


Downsizing fits owners' lifestyle

Dot's and Liz's new three bedroom Sunnyvale home is just three-fifths the size of the average new build. But they would have liked to go even more compact.

"We wanted smaller but then the per-square metre build cost would be too high, and there's no market for that small a house," Liz says.

In fact, Dot says, the valuer who assessed their plans for the mortgage application told them he didn't understand why they weren't building a five-bedroom brick-and-tile.

"We found it was actually quite difficult to build as small as you wanted to."

The Box Living house cost $335,000 to build, is walking distance to a train station, and has been built to adapt to changing needs - by splitting it into a two-bedroom unit and a self contained one-bedroom flat, a space Liz uses as her home office.

Four months after moving in, Dot says they have achieved what they wanted.

"It's small, well-designed, good passive solar performance and a lovely space."

- Herald on Sunday

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