Are our house sizes getting too big?

By Paul Little

What’s better when it comes to living well, a huge house or a tiny one? Paul Little talks to exponents on both ends of the housing spectrum.
The small 50 sq home that Andrew Simpson and Krysty Peebles live in.
The small 50 sq home that Andrew Simpson and Krysty Peebles live in.

It's not just the prices that are out of control. The very sizes of the homes being built in this torrid market are being pulled this way and that by two opposing trends - a demand for bigger and bigger houses and a movement favouring smaller and smaller houses.

The former trend is more noticeable because, well, bigger houses are more noticeable. They're big. Some of them are huge, in fact, far beyond the standard 110 square metres of a three bedroom family home of even a generation ago. You could fit 40 houses the size of Wellington architect Andrew Simpson's micro-home inside Kim Dotcom's former Coatesville residence.

The driving forces behind both trends are social, economic and technological.
At one end, nothing could be simpler than to throw on a few extra square metres to accommodate a brilliant home theatre with a great sound system. At the other, nothing could be simpler than to do away with a roomful of bookshelves and replace it with a Kindle holding all those books.

When it comes to selling established homes that are on the bulkier side, few people know more about the business than Gary and Vicki Wallace, from Bayley's Real Estate. Gary has been the number one residential salesperson for the past six years in a row and recently sold a $14 million home in Remuera for people who were seeking the sort of amenities only available in larger homes. And this is increasingly what buyers want, according to Vicki.

"There are families who are looking to buy bigger homes because they're increasing their family and moving older family members in - particularly with the Chinese market: the wife comes down to educate the children, then the grandparents come down and the husband comes in and out of China."

Not everyone insists on a present-wrapping room - allegedly the latest eastern suburbs must-have - but there's a case to be made for a laundry with an ironing station, and a car-washing bay for the three to five cars that might need garaging attached to the house.

At the very least, they will want "en suites off all the bedrooms. Someone came in this week wanting five bedrooms with an en suite off each. That's a bit difficult to find still in Auckland, unless you're building," says Gary.

These buyers will also want "multiple outdoor areas, perhaps one landscaped space looking over the pool, and structured gardens".

Those aspiring to mansion ownership may be misguided, according to Home magazine editor Jeremy Hansen, because they are designing not for their daily lives but "for special occasions. They picture themselves on Christmas day with their 25 favourite family members at an enormous dining table. That happens once a year at most - but they want bedrooms for all those people as well."

He quotes the story of a couple in dispute with their architect over two extra bedrooms which they wanted and he didn't, just so all of their children could stay there at the same time - in the unlikely event that ever happened. When they realised that for the price of those rooms they could take the whole family on holiday to Fiji instead ... they took the whole family on holiday to Fiji.

The sheer cost of housing is one of the drivers of the micro-house movement, big in the United States and slowly catching on here. Micro-houses are typically defined overseas as about 50sq m, but here, where we have relatively more land, they tend to run a little bigger.

At just 50sq m, Andrew Simpson and Krysty Peebles' house overlooking Wellington's bush and city conforms to Japanese architect Makoto Masuzawa's 
"minimum house" concept.
At just 50sq m, Andrew Simpson and Krysty Peebles' house overlooking Wellington's bush and city conforms to Japanese architect Makoto Masuzawa's "minimum house" concept.

Catherine Foster, the author of Small House Living, says there are three reasons leading people to shrink their living space. One is that it provides an affordable option for young people who are otherwise priced out of the market. Another is that it's a way for baby boomers to free up capital by moving out of a family home that has space that is now surplus to their retirements. And the third is growing support for the philosophy that small is not just beautiful but better for you.

"These are people who think too much is too much," says Foster. "We can live more lightly, consume more elegantly, and in a responsible way. People are beginning to realise that a well-designed small place can offer a lot of bang for its buck."

There are, however, says Foster, several impediments preventing people building micro-homes on sections that already contain a house but could easily contain one or two tiny dwellings. Banks are reluctant to lend on properties below a certain value. And there are numerous regulations that would-be micro-builders have to work their way through.

"Under the zoning regulations in many of our cities you can't build secondary dwellings unless they are a certain size and away from boundaries. People's parents might have gardens that will fit a minor dwelling but they're not allowed. I'd like to think our regulators and banks can change their mindsets. Architects are already there. Even [Te Papa architect] Pete Bossley can do clever small."

Architect Andrew Simpson and partner Krysty Peebles live in a 50sq m house in Wellington that he designed. Not that he's fanatical about size. In fact, he's currently designing a 400sq m house.

"It's really about designing spaces to suit," says Simpson. "You don't design small for the sake of designing small; you design it to suit the client and site. Someone who has 18 or 20 friends for dinner regularly has a different way of living than if you're like us, homebodies and wanting a small house."

Simpson and Peebles knew what they were squeezing themselves into with their home, having previously occupied 36 and 60sq m residences. The main influence was time Simpson had spent in Japan, where he had seen an exhibition about architect Makoto Masuzawa.

"He designed what he called the minimum house in 1952. The main constraint was size. And 50sq m was what the size was. It's fairly arbitrary, but if you design it bigger or smaller, it's not Masuzawa."

Inside Andrew Simpson and Krysty Peebles home.
Inside Andrew Simpson and Krysty Peebles home.

One of the biggest constraints Simpson found was storage. "Krysty will tell you we don't have enough. 'If only we had an extra half-metre.' Then we'd still have a small home - but it would no longer be a Masuzawa house."

Their house also has two enormous glass doors covering both levels. They open on to a small deck that overlooks bush and the city.

"Because it's all open plan you see across double height space out to tall doors. While all that space isn't necessarily used, that sense of space is still there."

Another resolution to the storage problem is not to have so much stuff, and that, says Hansen, who has always lived in relatively small spaces, is very freeing. "There's no point even spending time in shops looking for that special chair if you don't have room for it."

Mike Pickering is an engineer who is halfway through building a micro-home in the Hawkes Bay for himself and partner Loren Pickering.

"Loren said it would be quite good living in a tighter space. You can't hide from your troubles. So we thought we'd give it a nudge. We're probably about halfway through the build.

"The hardest thing is cramming it all in and making sure that everything has two or three uses. Our bed, for example, will slide under a raised floor, and we can use that space. We've got tables that turn into chairs and can be used inside and out and used as a computer station."

They already save space by doing everything in the Cloud. "Letters that come in I scan and rip up straight away. We don't really have any paper or pens."

The one thing they haven't quite worked out how to fit in the new home is children.
"That's been talked about," says Pickering. "We've been watching other couples in the same situation who had a kid. Most find it's fine until they get to 4 or 5 years old, or another one comes along. If that happens we'll roll with it. We'll probably build a real house by that stage."

Real houses of any size are a large part of the architectural practice of Peter Bossley - he who can do "clever small" and has designed some very large and beautiful homes indeed, for people who, it's been noted, may only spend a few weeks in them during their globetrotting year.

"I think they're both quite valid ways of exploring the ways people might live," says Bossley of the size question. "I don't think big is bad or small is better or anything. I think they're both relevant and always have been."

The crucial factor at any size, he says, is to make sure that dwellings are well planned, which current local government philosophy does not necessarily encourage.

"We are trying to push people into tiny apartments on the pretext that it is saving the planet. But I'm worried that we're going to get a bounce-back, and people will want to move to the suburbs again because apartments don't give them the amenities that they should. They should be more generous, have a lot more storage, and have a box room to replace the double garage."

Ravenstone homes are for those wanting to enjoy family life rather than spend time on property maintenance.
Ravenstone homes are for those wanting to enjoy family life rather than spend time on property maintenance.

He says more could be made of the smaller spaces, but we'd need to learn to share. "A lot of other opportunities could be taken. There could be different ways of sharing space by providing apartment buildings which make more use of the roof for terraces and gardens. Shared swimming pool areas. Shared workshops."

At the other end of the scale is John Green, chief executive of the Hugh Green Foundation. His late father, Hugh, had the foresight to buy up large tracts of land on what were then Auckland's fringes many years ago. Those tracts are now divided into good-sized sections.

"We take the sections up to the consent stage," says Green. "Out in Flat Bush, where [buyers are] predominantly Chinese, they build the houses as big as they can, to take up as much of the section as they can. There are two reasons. One is that, coming from China, they are not used to a lot of open space and don't want a lawn, garden and trees. The other reason is that they like to fit as many family members into the house as they can."

Ravenstone homes are for those wanting to enjoy family life rather than spend time on property maintenance.
Ravenstone homes are for those wanting to enjoy family life rather than spend time on property maintenance.

Philip Lee, director of Ravenstone Homes, has been building houses on these sections since 2007. He says there has definitely been a demand for bigger houses in the past few years - in certain areas. His typical property is a two-storey, 300sq m house on a section of around 400sq m.

"Flat Bush is quite a new suburb, and the people who are coming in here want larger homes and don't mind about the amount of land outside, as long as they have a deck. Maintenance is not top of their list. They don't want to be spending their weekends mowing lawns."

They want to spend their weekends playing with the children they don't get to see during the working week, and they do this at Barry Curtis Park, which is full of families enjoying themselves every Saturday and Sunday.

Flat Bush and its homes, therefore, might be different from what other Aucklanders are used to, but it's exactly what the people who live there need.

And so are Lee's houses. "They're six or seven bedrooms, with multiple living areas. This allows three generations to live in the same house: grandparents, the kids and their kids. I have had houses with both sets of grandparents living there, but most don't want that. I've also had families where the parents have come in and two individual brothers and their families live in it."

Ravenstone homes are for those wanting to enjoy family life rather than spend time on property maintenance.
Ravenstone homes are for those wanting to enjoy family life rather than spend time on property maintenance.

So in these cases, the big house is for family rather than status reasons, although the latter is not altogether irrelevant: "I get a lot of demand for the big chandeliers, the crystal lights."

Lee's customer base is also changing. "The people buying these big houses used to be 50-50 Chinese and Indian. At the moment I'm hitting 95 per cent Indian and none of them are New Zealand-born. For example, I just finished half a street and all the buyers were Indian - either from Fiji, India or South Africa."

One thing they're not paying for is variety. Given the amount that's being spent on them, why do these houses all look the same? Blame the local government.

"Zone requirements effectively dictate the shape of a house," says Lee, "and because you want to build as big as possible, they ultimately start to look the same shape. If we had huge pieces of land and could vary it they would be more different." Or the size of the houses would just expand to fill the space available.

Not everyone who has lived in a big house has found the experience an unalloyed pleasure. His sprawling mansion in Coatesville, says entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, was "totally oversized. There are really always only two or three areas frequently used in any house, and in our case it was the dining area, the Xbox room and the loggia outside, where you could sit at the fireplace and have a good time and a good chat."

Kim Dotcom's mansion.
Kim Dotcom's mansion.
Kim Dotcom's apartment.
Kim Dotcom's apartment.

The size of the house meant lots of staff were needed to keep it going, some of whom had their own accommodation as part of the house. There was a cottage for the Dotcom children with a giant playroom. The main house had four guest rooms.

But, if he only used a fraction of it, why did Dotcom want such a big home?

"That's the plan for most entrepreneurs. If you set out to be successful and achieve big goals, then a beautiful home is usually one of these, and some go further and say they want a yacht, car collection, motorboats, plane, helicopter, whatever. But you usually start with a nice home."

He also cites the need for a home in which to entertain business associates on a suitable scale. However, he says, "no one ever used the library. No one used the internal fireplace. I had one area where we played poker but after the raid we toned that down and only used it occasionally."

Dotcom has recently downsized to a harbourside apartment that he says he likes a lot more and is "like a tenth of what we had at the mansion. My room is much more compact and I don't need half an hour to get to the bathroom."

Surely, though, he has some standards - minimum requirements for any dwelling he'll consider inhabiting?

"The key thing is a supersized bed. I have a specially made mattress. It assures my sleep. My bedroom is always blacked out, set at the right temperature, and has no noise. As long as I have that, I could basically live in a bungalow. And a nice dining area where the family can eat together, because that is the most important time of the day."

- Canvas

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