Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Make yourself a home (+photos)

It might be the New Zealand dream but for many Aucklanders, owning their own home has become a chimera thanks to high prices and few affordable houses. The Auckland Council has plans more intensification and more green fields expansion, but others are already finding their only positive solutions to the city’s housing crisis, Greg Dixon finds.

Tom and Shaye Wilson at their 'Tiny House' in Oratia. Photo / Richard Robinson
Tom and Shaye Wilson at their 'Tiny House' in Oratia. Photo / Richard Robinson

Welcome to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Auckland-style. It a simple game: all you have to do is buy a house (ha!) and wait. And you may not have to wait that long, because, as everyone knows, property in Auckland is appreciating at a frightening rate.

The value of the average Auckland property has increased 100 per cent in the last decade - and this looks set to continue. In the past year the average salesprice of an Auckland home reportedly jumped 12 per cent (to $696,047), according to a Harcourts report issued a month ago. A survey of big city property in Australia, United States, Britain, Canada, Ireland and here has Auckland as the sixth most expensive out of 85. And in May the OECD's Economic Outlook reported New Zealand house prices were among the most overvalued in the developed world.

Scroll down to view a gallery of creative homes

Meanwhile, the pressure from demand is ever increasing. Auckland's population will grow to between 2.2 million and 2.5 million over the next 30 years, predicts the Auckland Council.

Around 400,000 extra homes will be required by 2040, which means that at least 13,000 additional houses have to be built each year. This is a huge challenge, the council concedes, given there's already a shortfall of about 10,000 homes and current levels of building are less than half what's required.

That's the Auckland housing crisis in a nutshell then: ever higher prices and a shortfall of new homes, meaning the long-time New Zealand dream - actually, not dream, expectation - of owning your own home is now a distant reality for an ever-growing number of Aucklanders. Blame who you want for the situation - property speculators and immigrants are the usual suspects - but the solution is complex and long-term.

In targets stretching out to 15 years - the council says it will increase the supply of "affordable" housing (it measures affordable by whether a household pays more or less than 30 per cent of its gross income on housing costs). Under its Housing Accord with the Government and its own unitary plan, the council will do this with, among other things, some intensification in existing suburbs and some expansion beyond the "metropolitan urban limits".

However, small groups of creative Kiwis have been dreaming up, designing and building their own solutions to Auckland's housing ...

The Tiny House

Tom and Shaye Wilson at their 'Tiny House' in Oratia. Photo / Richard Robinson

Could you live in just 15sq m?

For many New Zealanders it would be unimaginable living in a space not much bigger than their bedroom (or, in some cases, their bathroom). After all, our homes are among the largest in the world and are getting larger: according to Quotable Value, houses built after 2010 averaged 205sq m, up from 142.4sq m in 1980.

However, a tiny but growing number of New Zealanders are resisting the trend towards McMansions by joining a "small house" movement, which originated in United States in the 1980s.

For some, like Shaye and Tom Wilson, their tiny home - which is just 15sq m - is a stepping stone to a larger small home.

The West Auckland couple bought a wonderful, bushy section in Oratia a year ago and decided they wanted to live on it as soon as possible. After searching the web for design ideas, they had a steel trailer made to their specifications - many tiny houses are made to be moved - then, with no building experience, they built their tiny house themselves in just four months. The total cost: around $25,000 for new and recycled (including windows and doors) materials.

The result is suprisingly spacious, with an L-shaped couch, a double mattress in a mezzanine "loft" and plenty of storage. The kitchen and toilet and shower are contained in one third of the home.

The tiny home will serve until the couple have built themselves a permanent home - this time a straw bale house - which they hope to finish in a couple of years.

"We're very passionate about the environment and trying to preserve it - and improve it actually, rather than thinking that it is something that we can just keep using and abusing," says Shaye, who is pregnant with the couple's first child.

"We decided we wanted to spend our money on the land rather than an expensive house ... We thought how can we do that? Keep the house small."

You don't have to build your own tiny house, of course. Body and mind therapist Connie Kristensen, originally from Denmark, had her homely and very Danish tiny house built for her, though after going through three builders, it took 10 months and $80,000 to build, roughly double what she was hoping. The home is currently parked at the Earthsong co-housing community, in the West Auckland suburb of Ranui, where Kristensen had flatted for seven years.

Connie Kristensen in her "tiny house" at Earthsong, Ranui. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Her new home, in which she's been living for just four months, has a leadlight window made by her late husband, a stove and hobs that run on meths and a composting toilet. It's very compact, but just right for her.

"In a way it's a beautiful caravan," she says. "I like to keep things simple. I live best if things are simple. Also the eco thing, of living on as small a footpint as possible. And economy. All good things."

Hers and the Wilsons' tiny homes are conventional in many ways. However, Bryce Langston hopes the tiny house he and his girlfriend, Melissa Nickerson, are planning will push boundaries.

Almost a year in the planning, the 6.5m by 2.5m home is now entering the building stage (the trailer has just been completed by West Auckland trailer specialists, Monoway) and will be almost entirely self-sufficient with photovoltaic roof panels generating electricity which will be stored in batteries, a wetback multi-fuel stove for cooking and eating, a composting toilet (Langston hopes to use the result, along with the home's grey water, on a vege garden), small hydroponic window gardens and even a bird box.

The budget for materials is $30,000, however Langston, who has an acting and communications background and is making a web documentary and writing a book about the experience, has commercial partners.

"There are lot of different reasons why I'm doing the project. There is a part of me that is just raging hippie and I love the idea of downsizing, of living a less materialistic life and focusing more on experiences and spending my money on things that are more innately important to me.

"The homes are beautiful, they're really, really nice. It kind of harks back to the Thoreauvian, Walden Pond cabin and there is a definite romance about that. I really, really love that idea ... and I thought this is fantastic for me and it's also going to be fantastic for a lot of other New Zealanders."

The Co-Housing Community

Robin Allison at the Earthsong co-community. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Even in winter, Earthsong sings. Even in June, the extensive gardens in the small community in Ranui, West Auckland, are lush and fertile and still producing food for the 65 or so people who live in its 32 homes. Earthsong is a co-housing community, a concept which originated in Denmark in the early 1970s in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own self-contained neighbourhoods.

Envisaged in the 1990s and built in the 2000s (the last of the homes were completed in 2006), Earthsong is a mix of private ownership of the homes (and small patches of land around them) and common ownership, with workshops, driveways, vegetable gardens and the common house - which has a communal dining room, kitchen and laundry - jointly owned by the community. Earthsong is ever-evolving, but right now it's two-thirds female. Its youngest resident was born just three months ago and the eldest is in their 70s. There is a range of sizes and house types on the 1.2 ha property, with one, two, three or four bedrooms. Most are owner-occupied, some are rented.

Co-housing provides a balance of privacy, community, autonomy and co-operation, says Robin Allison, one of the community's founders.

"I guess people who have become involved in Earthsong, and either live here or own a house here, do so because we're dissatisfied with the standard suburban model of isolation, not really knowing your neighbours, having to have one of everything - washing machine, lawn mower and so on. And we just feel that there's a better way, of actually being more co-operative, of knowing who our neighbours are, of feeling safer at nights, looking out for each other, being able to borrow stuff or look after the neighbour's cat or pass the baby over for a bit ... A whole range of ways, where, because we know each other well and we have really good systems around how we manage our collective gear and how we keep our relationships clear and that kind of thing, we trust each other to do a whole lot of stuff that just makes life so much richer, so much more pleasant."

Allison, who is an architect, says by agreement among its founders, Earthsong homes were built to a high eco standard with rammed earth walls, exposed natural timber and solar water heating. A two-bedroom home at Earthsong is currently for sale for $450,000.

"They are crafted houses. You could certainly do co-housing with cheaper buildings. But those who were in the group during the design phase prioritised high-quality, beautiful housing over affordability. But actually they are really affordable in other ways because they are healthy, high-quality, non-toxic, energy-efficient, and have very low running costs, with solar water heaters, etc. And for the cost of your house you also get a share of the communal buildings and land. So they are not just single houses, there are a number of ways we get a whole lot more.

"I just absolutely love Earthsong. I was surprised how long it took and how hard it was actually getting the place built, it was absolutely enormous. However, I don't want that to put people off. We had to develop a lot of systems for the first time. Now we are making an effort to share how we did so that other people don't have to invent everything from the start."

The One-Bedroom Apartment

Peter Jeffries of the Commmunity Of Refuge Trust at trust's housing on Princes St, Otahuhu. Photo / Chris Gorman

Peter Jeffries is quite clear: we need to live like we used to live. Driving me around some of the older parts of Ponsonby - notably in Renall St- Jeffries, the chief executive of CORT Community Housing, points out the small homes built around 100 years ago and how they almost fill their small sections.

"What we're trying to get across is that we've solved this problem with housing in the past. But instead, we've gone from living in these at the turn of the 20th century to the third biggest houses in the world."

Ponsonby-based CORT (Community of Refuge Trust) is a major owner and developer of social and affordable rental properties in Auckland, with around 186 properties accommodating 218 tenants, many with mental health issues.

While CORT is concerned with buying and developing properties to provide rental homes for some of Auckland's most disadvantaged, Jeffries says the agency's 27 years' experience in buying and developing property in the city - and with dealing with the council - gives it insight into what needs to happen next.

He believes the council hasn't gone far enough with its current plans for intensification and expansion of the urban city limits, nor has it given high enough priority to building new one and two-bedroom dwellings, which is where much of the pressure is.

"At the moment, 44 per cent of of households are single people or couples without kids. And it is likely, by 2030, to go to 55 per cent of all households. The mayor says, 'we want to be a little up and a little out'. We say we should be 'a little up, a little out and a little everywhere'. We're saying you can do intensification in suburban spaces to a medium density with limitations, only two storeys. But you've got to allow that to happen across the board. In doing that you suddenly open up a whole lot more options. We need to get supply exceeding demand in terms of development options and then prices will come down ... and [current] zoning is preventing the 'little' everywhere."

CORT has a number of housing developments in train. However, it is the one it developed in Princes St in Otahuhu that's a great example of what can be done, Jeffries says.

When CORT bought the property there was just one house on a 900sq m site. Now, despite initial zoning problems, there are two, two-storeyed apartment complexes - that's eight, one-bedroom apartments of 50sq m with a cost, including the land, of around $240,000 per unit.

How did CORT achieve it? "We just hounded the council. We pulled all our cards out about being community housing, getting really shitty with them. We are using every little trick in the book."

In the end the council relented on CORT's plan because the property was on the very border of residential and semi-commerical zoning, he says, and the resulting development provides much more accommodation than it otherwise would have while still being sympathetic to the neighbourhood.

"Suddenly we've taken a site that council said the most you can put on there is two houses, and we've gone in and put eight units in there. That is where your answer is if you want to avoid going to high-rise and blocks of flats. To build affordable housing, we've got to get back to this sort of stuff."

The Container House

Ingrid and Cam Cotton, with one of Cubular's container showhomes in Mt Maunganui. Photo / Alan Gibson

Imagine your new home being ready in just six weeks. That's how quickly Mt Maunganui-based Cubular can deliver your new container home to you - and they really do deliver, dropping it by crane on to your property.

The container home has long been one of those good ideas that, for some reason, has never quite had its time. Perhaps the first, but certainly the most famous local container house was constructed from three stacked containers on a hillside in Wellington eight years ago by Ross Stevens, an industrial design lecturer at Victoria University. Containers have also been very successfully used for the Re:Start mall in Christchurch.

Indeed Cubular, owned by husband and wife (an architect and interior designer) Cam and Ingrid Cotton, was started in response to the housing crisis in Christchurch following the earthquakes. "We saw an opportunity to perhaps present these as temporary accommodation for workers or a quick solution to homes," Ingrid says. "Of course these can withstand really harsh elements, they're fine through earthquakes, floods all that sort of stuff."

The couple has since developed a range of container homes with the smallest (15sq m of space) being made from a single 20ft container and the largest (183sq m) constructed from six 40ft containers. The houses are built in their own factory and prices start at $65,000.

They also build commercial buildings from containers, including the Long Bay Cafe in Auckland, which won Cubular a number of architecture design awards.

The steel used in container homes has a 50 to 75-year lifespan and "green building principles" are integrated into Cubular's designs. They can be bought off-plan or completely customised, depending on the buyer's needs and budget.

"We create them next door [in our factory]," says Ingrid. "We take a container, be it an upcycled container or a new one, and from there it all depends on the client and what they're after. There can be a very quick turnaround, we could deliver in six weeks.

Cubular has its homes inspected by the council during the building process and again on site, removing that stress from its clients. And dealing with council was a headache for Manu Pouajen-Blakiston, an engineer building a container home in Wellington.

Gallery: View more creative homes here

"Yeah, it's been a little bit of a nightmare. If it's a little out of the ordinary you've got to pay for extra work just convincing people that it is legitimate. Everyone knows that a shipping container is built like a bomb shelter but no one is willing to back it, to do the pages and pages of engineering required to back it."

However, his 40ft container, which container company Royal Wolf customised for him, is now on his small property in Brooklyn and ready for a builder mate to do the interior. At completion, the land and container will have cost him about $350,000 - around $50,000 more than he was hoping.

"I think people are realising that you don't need a bedroom that you can rollerskate around," Ingrid says. "We're not spending a lot of time in our bedrooms. It's more about the living space, connecting it to the outside and really reducing our footprint a little bit.

We need to relook at the way we live and reduce our size and our efficiency of living."

- NZ Herald

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